Political Group Launches 'Aggressive Targeting Strategy' to Get More Scientists Elected in 2020

Protestors at the Los Angeles March for Science in April 2017.
Photo: AP

2018 was a banner year for scientists getting elected to public office. Now, a group that pushed hard to send some of those technically-minded folks to Capitol Hill is redoubling its efforts ahead of the 2020 election.

Last week, 314 Action, a political action committee that focuses on getting scientists and other STEM professionals elected to public office, announced an “aggressive strategy” for targeting 25 Congressional districts across the nation during the 2019-2020 election cycle. The group, which works only with Democratic candidates, wants to flip these Republican districts blue and expand the Democratic majority in the House. But specifically, it wants to fill the seats with engineers, medical doctors, geologists, physicists, and other STEM professionals who can leverage their technical expertise and training to tackle policy issues from the local to national scale.

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“There are nine new members [of Congress] with a science background,” 314 Action Executive Director Josh Morrow told Earther, referring to the national candidates the organization endorsed who won their elections in 2018. “But I think we should have 90.”

The 25 districts (and Arizona Senate seat) 314 Action has targeted for its 2020 campaign efforts.
Image: 314 Action

To that end, 314 Action is zeroing in on districts across the country that the organization sees a good chance of flipping. Some of those districts are bastions of technical expertise, like New York’s First on Long Island, which plays host to Brookhaven National Lab. Other districts were chosen, in part, because the Environmental Protection Agency is underfunded or threatening to close offices there, or because of a local environmental issue that could greatly benefit from some scientific expertise. Morrow pointed to Florida’s 16th district, which runs from Sarasota to Hillsborough County on the state’s Gulf Coast, as a prime example. Currently represented by Vern Buchanan, a Republican with an anti-environment track record, the region is just now emerging from an epically-destructive, red tide algae crisis that began in 2017. “Let’s send a marine biologist to Congress,” Morrow said of that district, which is on 314 Action’s shortlist.

This strategy saw some success in 2018. Ocean engineer Joe Cunningham, who 314 Action endorsed, was successful in flipping South Carolina’s Trump-supporting First District blue, leaning on his background in marine science to lend weight to his anti-offshore drilling stance, something that locals apparently felt strongly about too.

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Morrow described this focus on hyper-local issues “that Republicans and Democrats can agree on” as a defining feature of the success stories 314 Action has been a part of so far. As he put it, “nobody wants to see drilling in Charleston.” Similarly, the group is now targeting Alaska’s lone congressional district in the hopes of finding a science candidate eager to act on climate change, which is already having sweeping impacts across the state including on important industries like fishing.

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Despite the focus on areas of bipartisan consensus and supporting experts who many might perceive as above the political fray, 314 Action is firmly on team Democrat. Asked whether it would consider supporting a conservative candidate in the future—several STEM-minded Republicans did get elected in 2018—Morrow demurred.

“I don’t see that in the foreseeable future,” he said, adding that it’s “very tough to get donors to support someone who may support a Paul Ryan-like budget.”

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“I’m not saying never never, but for the foreseeable future we’re a Democratic organization.”

It’s still early days for this latest effort. Morrow said 314 Action is in conversation with “a number of candidates” across the target districts who are currently considering a run and have reached out for guidance on putting together a campaign team. “In other [districts], we’re knocking on doors, talking to folks, starting to recruit,” he said. 314 Action likely won’t be announcing a list of Congressional candidates it’s endorsing for at least another few months, although Morrow did note that the organization “actively ran a campaign” to draft former astronaut Mark Kelly, who last week announced his bid for the Arizona Senate seat previously held by John McCain.

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But based on the results of the 2018 election cycle, Morrow expects the science candidates to come out in force. Between the Trump administration’s deregulatory frenzy, its sidelining of expertise, and its repeated calls to slash federal research budgets, the scientific community has become politically mobilized in a way it hasn’t been in decades.

“In 2017, the amount of people who wanted to run all over the board was insane,” Morrow said. “I think in terms of the level of excitement among the activists it’s died down a little. Among scientists it’s not died down at all.”

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Maddie Stone

Maddie Stone is a freelancer based in Philadelphia.