Rep. Lamar Smith Out of Touch With Science, Challenger Says

Aerospace engineer — a veteran — is taking on Science committee chairman

Lamar Smith chairs the House Science Space and Technology Committee. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

GOP Rep. Lamar Smith, the chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, is getting a Democratic challenger who says Smith is out of touch with science and his constituents.

Joseph Kopser announced Tuesday that he is taking on Smith, who is running for re-election for a 17th term in Congress in the solidly Republican central Texas district. Kopser, a combat veteran who served in Iraq and earned a Bronze Star, is one of a slew of candidates in science and technology fields running for elected office as political outsiders.

“For me this is about public service ... It’s something that I’ve been working on my whole life,” Kopser said. “In reality this is just the next chapter.”

Kopser said he had been traveling the district in recent months, and decided in the last few weeks that he could launch a formidable challenge. Kopser’s announcement comes as Democrats are expanding their list of targets in 2018 to more traditionally Republican areas, and encouraging candidates with diverse backgrounds to run for office.

Scientific focus 

Smith has been in the crosshairs for a group known as 314 Action for his views on climate change. Smith recently said at a March hearing that climate science was based more on “exaggerations, personal agendas and questionable predictions than on scientific method.”

314 Action, which is named after the first three digits of Pi, is encouraging people in the science, technology, education and math (STEM) fields to run for office. The group heard about Kopser back in February since he was working with Joe Trippi, one of the group’s founders and advisors.

Lamar Smith is one of our top-targeted seats,” said Joshua Morrow, 314′s executive director. Morrow said they helped connect Kopser’s team with other staffers and consultants.

The group is working with about a dozen congressional candidates — and hundreds of potential candidates at the state and local levels.

It is also working with another Texas candidate, Dr. Jason Westin, who is challenging GOP Rep. John Culberson in the 7th District. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates that race as Likely Republican.

Morrow said candidates in STEM fields have to be trained on campaign basics, and are also realizing that they often need to step away from their jobs to run for office. But, Morrow said, people are willing to make that sacrifice to bring their knowledge to the policymaking process.

“We need that level of expertise to handle the issues that are really complicated like climate change,” Morrow said.

Kopser said his background in public service, technology, and business puts him in a unique position to run for Congress. 

Fascinated by space exploration as a child, Kopser decided to study aerospace engineering at West Point. He served in the Army for 20 years. After his time in the Army, he founded a technology company that developed a transportation app to help people find all of the options for transportation near them. 

Kosper said Smith’s views on science, as well as the degrading civil discourse and increasing divisions in the country, helped spur him to run for office. And, he noted, others are responding to “attacks on science” by taking action and becoming involved in their communities. 

“All of this stuff that has been causing people grief is finally turning to action,” Kopser said. “It’s created a new awakening in ideas, in movements, and people.”

For Kopser, science ties into his three campaign focuses: jobs, education and our children’s future. 

He also sees the 21st District, which stretches from San Antonio to Austin, as a place where technology and new energy jobs could flourish.

“The Texas 21st is going to be engine of change on an issue like climate change,” Kopser said. “Right in our backyard we have the people, the engineers and the manufacturers to actually build the technology we need.”

But Kopser won't be the only candidate stressing climate change. Consistent with other races across the country, the Texas 21st is shaping up to have a crowded Democratic primary.

Derek Crowe is also running as a Democrat, and says climate change is important to the people in Smith's district.

Crowe is a former congressional staffer who helped set up the local chapter for 350.org, a grassroots group focused on climate change. Crowe said his young son, and Smith's views on the issue, have motivated him to run against Smith.

"It was clear to me once Lamar Smith became an outspoken Trump supporter, that it was no use trying to change his mind on issues like climate change," Crowe said. 

Running in GOP territory 

But Kopser faces a difficult environment running as a Democrat in GOP territory. Inside Elections rates Smith’s district as Solidly Republican. 

President Donald Trump won Smith’s district by 10 points in November, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections. Smith won his re-election by 21 points.

Democrats are looking to target more traditionally Republican districts and announced a second round of targets on Monday to include seats that President Donald Trump won in November.

Smith’s seat would have been included in the new round of DCCC targets, but the committee is waiting for a dispute over Texas redistricting to be settled.

Achim Bergmann, a Democratic strategist who has been working with some 314 candidates, said having strong candidates in GOP districts is key for Democrats looking to retake the House. Bergmann also worked at the DCCC when they won the House majority in 2006.

“I think it’s going to create lot of competitive races where there otherwise wouldn’t have been a competitive race,” Bergmann said. “This kind of a challenge is a step in the right of direction of expanding the playing field.”

Kopser said the district’s conservative-leaning does not count him out. He has so far raised more than $86,000 via Crowdpac, and is confident he will have the resources to wage a successful campaign. 

Kopser said the district has been increasing in population, and his background serving in the Army and in the community would resonate with voters. He is also looking to highlight his role as a political outsider, and argue that Smith is not in touch with his district.

“While Lamar Smith serves Trump and industry lobbyists, I’m here to serve the people of Texas,” Kopser says in his announcement video provided to Roll Call. He later says, “Lamar Smith’s had his 30 years. But that ends now.”

It is possible the district could incorporate more Democratic voters if the congressional map is redrawn for 2018. A three-judge panel threw out a handful of districts in March, saying they were unlawfully gerrymandered.  A hearing in the Texas redistricting case is currently  set for July, according to the Texas Tribune. 

“Right now I have no idea how the districts are going to end up,” Kopser said. “That’s not a threat or a worry to what we’re trying to do. We are in this to win it.”

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