Democracy Dies in Darkness

Science

How science fared in the midterm elections

November 7, 2018 at 4:19 PM

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Measures to curb climate change foundered in many Western states, but environmental advocates did see victories in Florida and Nevada. (Luis Velarde /The Washington Post)

This year, more candidates with degrees in science, medicine and engineering ran for Congress than ever before. Of the nearly two-dozen new candidates in this crop, at least seven won seats in the House of Representatives.

The newcomers, mostly Democrats, include Chrissy Houlahan, who has a degree in industrial engineering and won in Pennsylvania. Sean Casten, who has worked as a biochemist, flipped a longtime Republican district in Chicago. Ocean engineer Joe Cunningham, who came out strongly against offshore drilling, won in South Carolina. Lauren Underwood, a registered nurse, won Illinois’s 14th District. In Virginia, Elaine Luria, who has a nuclear engineering background, defeated the Republican incumbent, Scott Taylor. Jeff Van Drew, who won a seat representing the 2nd Congressional District in New Jersey, is a dentist.

Pediatrician Kim Schrier is ahead in her race for Washington’s 8th District, with more than half of the vote counted as of Wednesday morning.

One new GOP congressman, Oklahoma’s Kevin Hern, has a bachelor’s degree in engineering.

Two candidates with PhDs in science, chemist Randy Wadkins and data scientist Mel Hall, did not win their elections. Two incumbents with PhDs kept their seats: Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.), a former high-energy physicist at Fermilab, and Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.), who worked as an engineer and has a PhD in mathematics.

The pending Democratic takeover of the House is likely to shake up how Congress handles science.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.) is poised to take control of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Johnson was the first registered nurse elected to Congress, and will be the first chair of the committee with a STEM background since the 1990s, when it was led by former engineer George Brown (D-Calif.). She has a strong positive rating from the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental advocacy group.

Johnson’s leadership of the committee will be a departure from that of its current chair, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), who will retire at the end of this term. Smith frequently questioned National Science Foundation grants, fought to curb federal research on climate change and used subpoena power to demand scientists’ data and correspondence.

Johnson wasted no time in setting a new agenda. In a statement released Tuesday night, she alluded to recent efforts by federal officials to change how science is considered in policymaking, declaring that “defending the scientific enterprise from political and ideological attacks” and “challenging misguided or harmful administration actions” would be among her top priorities. In the statement, Johnson affirmed that “climate change is real” and said she would seek ways to mitigate it.

Democratic congressional candidate Chrissy Houlahan declares victory in the midterm election in Pennsylvania. (Bastiaan Slabbers/EPA-EFE)

Congress will probably lose one of its most outspoken climate change deniers, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), also a member of the science committee. (Rohrabacher told Pacific Standard last week that climate science is “bogus,” despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that climate change is real.) Democrat Harley Rouda was ahead in the race.

The ripple effects of the Nov. 6 midterm elections won’t stop at the stratosphere, with possible impacts as far away as Jupiter’s largest moon. Rep. John Abney Culberson (R-Tex.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee who oversees funding for the NSF and NASA, lost his reelection bid to Democrat Lizzie Fletcher. Culberson had been a leading advocate for exploration of Europa, an ice-covered moon that is considered a target in the search for life; this year he earmarked $195 million for a proposed lander mission. It’s not clear what will happen to the project now that its leading champion in Congress has been unseated.

Many of the left-leaning science candidates were supported by 314 Action, a political action committee that bills itself as a leader in “the pro-science resistance.” Among those were Jacky Rosen, a former computer programmer and congresswoman from Nevada who was elected to the U.S. Senate, whom Shaughnessy Naughton, president of 314 Action, called a “staunch defender of science in Congress” in a statement.

Naughton told The Washington Post on Wednesday that Cunningham’s victory in South Carolina, where President Trump won by 13 points in 2016, was a particularly good example of a candidate leaning on a scientific background: Cunningham said he drew on his experience as an ocean engineer in his opposition to a Trump administration plan that would open up drilling off the Carolina coast.

“We’re really excited to see what these new members of congress will be able to accomplish,” Naughton said, citing problems as diverse as climate change, election security and gerrymandering. “As scientists they are problem-solvers.” Next February, the PAC plans to train more scientists to run for office in 2019 and beyond.

This story has been updated.

Read more:

2018 is the year of scientists running for Congress

This group wants to fight ‘anti-science’ rhetoric by getting scientists to run for office

Why people are marching for science: ‘There is no Planet B’


Ben Guarino is a reporter for The Washington Post’s Science section. Before joining The Post in 2016, he worked as a freelance science journalist, an associate editor at the Dodo and a medical reporter at the McMahon Group. He also has a background in bioengineering.

Sarah Kaplan is a science reporter covering news from around the nation and across the universe. She previously worked overnights on The Washington Post's Morning Mix team.

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