When Kim Schrier campaigns in central Washington farm towns, she talks about protecting health care, reforming immigration laws, and the harmful effects of new White House tariffs on the region’s hay, cherry, and apple growers. But she says she also brings up climate change and what it means for local businesses.
“Our farmers have a lot of evidence that the climate is changing,” says Schrier, the Democratic candidate for Washington’s eighth congressional district. “They see lots of wildfires each year, and they want someone to address it.”
Schrier is a 50-year-old pediatrician making her first run for elected office in a district that includes both Democratic suburban residents and rural Republican ones. While recent polls show that climate change and the environment continues to be a polarizing issue for voters nationwide, Schrier has put it at the top of her campaign website and in stump speeches.
“[Voters] understand that scientists are not politicians,” says Schrier, who studied astrophysics at Berkeley before getting her medical degree. “And if you have taken a science class, you know science is not a political issue.”
But dozens of STEM professionals like Schrier have leapt into politics in the past year, one ripple effect of the March for Science movement that emerged in response to the Trump administration. Under a pouring rain at the Washington Monument in 2017, celebrities and activists spoke passionately about the importance of getting more STEM folks into office. Eighteen months later, it’s almost time to see whether that hope can be channeled into winning elections.
“Scientists can no longer sit on the sidelines,” says Josh Morrow, political director for the pro-science PAC 314 Action. “They have to be part of the policymaking and legislating.”
After the march, 314 Action and other progressive groups organized weekend boot camps to teach first-time candidates how to raise money, earn free media, and hone their message to voters. Morrow says his group was contacted by more than 7,000 people interested in running for office in federal, state and local races. 314 Action endorsed 74 candidates at the state and local level this election season. And of the 23 candidates for House and Senate that the PAC endorsed during the primaries, 13 made it to the general election. Schrier is one of them.
A recent New York Times Upshot/Sienna College poll has Schrier in a dead heat with her Republican opponent, Dino Rossi, for the 8th district’s open seat. According to McClatchy, the Democratic party dumped more money into her campaign in September than any other race in the country.
Morrow says 314 Action has a $50,000 digital ad buy for Schrier, and it will likely spend more. With less than a month before election day, Morrow says the group has targeted several competitive races with independent expenditure money. Overall, the PAC has raised $3 million in donations and expects to have close to $5 million to spend in the midterm election.
Morrow believes that STEM candidates like Schrier survived because they connected with voters and were able to raise enough money to get out their message. “Science comes up all the time,” Schrier says. “I believe evidence matters whether we are talking about climate change or space exploration or immigration policy. In each case, the important thing is that data matters.”
At the same time, running for office remains expensive and time-consuming, and the hill first-time candidates need to climb is steep.
“When I first inquired, [political organizers] said your chances are 40 percent and you would have to take a year off from work to run for office,” Schrier says. “I didn’t have a clue about running for office.”
Sean Casten had a humbling experience, too. A Chicago-area cleantech entrepreneur with a master’s degree in engineering, he is trying to unseat Republican Peter Roskam in the Illinois sixth district.
“When I was running a company, I had private equity money and a couple of hundred employees,” he said. “I was a big shot. I now have a whole lot of volunteers and I’m a much less relevant person.”
Casten built a greentech company that makes highly efficient heat and power plants. He says he was irked by Roskam referring to climate change as “junk science” during a campaign debate back in 2006. (Roskam did, however, join the bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus earlier this year.)
Casten believes that having more scientists in Congress will inject more rational decision-making into policymaking. He wants to make it easier for industries to reduce carbon emissions as they upgrade to new technologies, and is proposing legislation that would allow companies more flexibility in switching to cleaner-burning gas or biofuels without triggering additional federal oversight under the Clean Air Act.
“You would give a ton of businesses a way of thinking about environmental compliance in a way that saves them money,” he says.
Polling and prognosticators have Casten’s race as a toss-up, but he is entering the last few weeks with a cash disadvantage. Even though Casten reportedly raised twice as much as his opponent in the third quarter, he also only had about $650,000 on hand at the end of June; Roskam had more than $2.3 million.
And that is the biggest hurdle for getting political newcomers like many of 2018’s STEM candidates into office, according to Rep. Bill Foster. Foster is one of only three PhD scientists in the House of Representatives—there’s a physicist, microbiologist and a chemist. By contrast, there are six former talk show hosts.
“The reason we have such low participation in politics is the money that appears necessary,” says Foster, who is running for reelection in the Illinois 11th district. “It’s difficult to get accomplished scientists to engage in that.”
Foster worked as a particle physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory before getting elected in 2008. Encased in clear acrylic on his desk is a hunk of graphite from the first nuclear reactor built at the University of Chicago in 1942. Today, he is asked for technical advice by both Republican and Democratic colleagues, such as technical details of the Iran nuclear deal, and the problems with an electronic fence built along the Arizona-Mexico border a few years ago.
As for the March for Science newcomers who looking for a seat in Congress, Foster says they may have a bigger impact by starting out in local elections first.
“There’s a big value to have someone technically literate on the school board,” he said. “In my district, there’s a statistician who works for a national lab running for state senate. She has got an excellent chance of winning.”