WASHINGTON — Midterm elections may be a year and a half away, but in Texas’ 21st Congressional District the race to rid Washington of one of its most stalwart deniers of near-universally accepted climate science is already well underway.
At least nine Democratic candidates are vying for a chance to unseat 16-term Republican Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology and an early and loyal supporter of President Donald Trump. And the Democratic primary field in the district, which stretches from Austin to San Antonio and into West Texas, is only expected to grow.
“Smith has really put a target on his back,” said Adam Reiser of The Race to Replace, a group of Democratic organizers working to support progressive candidates capable of ousting Smith.
Reiser said left-leaning voters in central Texas are anxious to unseat Smith: “People are paying attention in a way that I’ve never seen in my life.”
It won’t be an easy race for whoever eventually becomes the Democratic nominee; the district is both heavily gerrymandered and historically Republican. Smith’s Democratic opponent last November, Tom Wakely, tallied just 36 percent of the vote to Smith’s 57 percent.
But both Reiser and Jason Sugg of TX21 Indivisible, another liberal group working in the district, are hopeful 2018 will be different. Blue voters are moving into cities like Austin and San Antonio, and polls show that the majority of the district’s residents believe in and support taking action to combat climate change, putting Smith at odds with most of his constituents. Furthermore, last year was the first time Smith’s percentage of the vote dipped below 60.
“I think, especially with the prospect of a wave election in 2018, that this is a district that could really be one of those surprise wins,” Sugg said. “There’s a lot of potential here when you actually drill down and look at the numbers.”
First elected in 1986, Smith is the 14th-longest-serving member of the current U.S. House. The San Antonio native has received more than $700,000 from the oil and gas industry over those years. In his five years as chairman of the science committee, he has worked to defund climate research and harassed federal climate scientists, whom he has accused of playing “fast and loose” with data. He has also sprinted to defend the fossil fuel industry ― namely Exxon Mobil Corp. ― from investigations into their own records on climate change and used his power to push his own anti-science agenda, stacking hearings with coal and chemical lobbyists and climate skeptics.
Days after Trump’s inauguration, Smith drew backlash when, on the floor of the House, he claimed that it is “better to get your news directly from the president. In fact, it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth.”
Smith is among a trio of Republicans that nonprofit political action committee 314 Action is targeting for their anti-science views. Smith’s office did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
TX21 Indivisible hosted a town hall in Austin last month, where several aspiring candidates fielded questions from voters. And on May 1, The Race to Replace hosted the first in a series of candidate forums it is organizing throughout the summer. The resounding message at both events was that it’s time for Smith to go.
The Race To Replace isn’t backing any particular candidate, though Reiser did say there are a number of “strong” contenders. Instead the group is focused on galvanizing energy to remove Smith and field strong, progressive, electable candidates for the March 2018 primary and November general election.
It’s still very early in the race, and the field of candidates will almost certainly change between now and March. But there’s a lot more interest this year than there has been in the past. Smith didn’t even have a Democratic challenger in 2014.
Sugg credits the newfound outrage not only to Trump’s election, but also to the regressive actions taken by the the Texas Legislature this session, including its passage of a controversial bill to punish so-called “sanctuary cities” that protect undocumented immigrants and consideration of legislation to limit bathroom access for transgender people.
“These things kind of step out of plain old conservatism and step into out-and-out cruelty,” Sugg said. “It’s been shocking, I think, for people to see the Trump election and then also to be sitting here in central Texas and watching what’s unfolding in the Texas Legislature. I think there’s a sense that we have to do something — and it’s possible to do something.”
Below is a list of those who have announced their intention to run in the Democratic primary for the district:
Tom Wakely, a 63-year-old U.S. Air Force veteran and former minister. He is also a former union organizer and currently runs a hospice out of his San Antonio home. Smith defeated Wakely in the 2016 general election.
Derrick Crowe, a 36-year-old climate activist and progressive organizer. A resident of Austin, Crowe has roughly six years’ experience working on Capitol Hill. In a recent interview with HuffPost, Crowe said he couldn’t sit back and watch Smith deny climate change and threaten future generations.
Ryan Allen, an emergency physician in Austin. On his Crowdpac fundraising page, Allen says that Smith and Trump have “declared a war on truth” and the scientific community, and that “it’s time to bring smart, compassionate leadership back to Congress.”
Joseph Kopser, an aerospace engineer and Army veteran from Austin. Kopser told PBS NewsHour this week that, although Smith is a “nice gentleman,” he “has a view toward science and technology that is not helpful in terms of where our economy is going.”
Rixi Melton, a mother, community leader and small-business manager in Austin. Melton is “passionately committed to protecting and serving those who don’t have a voice” and ready to take on an incumbent “who doesn’t represent the interests of most of his constituents,” she writes on her Facebook page.
Scott Sturm, a paramedic in New Braunfels. On his Crowdpac fundraising page, Sturm writes that he is running to “be an advocate for the people who need it most” and to fight against a system that “favors the big corporations and the wealthy.”
Mary Wilson, a former mathematics teacher and the pastor of a Baptist church in Cedar Park. At a recent candidate forum, Wilson said she was inspired to run after hearing Smith say Trump was the best place to get the “unvarnished truth.” “I realized now is the time for people to speak up, stand up — and stand up for truth,” she said.
Chris Perri, an Austin-based criminal defense attorney. Perri told HuffPost in a recent email that Smith’s “corporate-pandering, science-denying” policies “disregard the well-being of his constituents,” and that it’s time voters elect a new leader so they can “start receiving actual benefits in exchange for their hard-earned tax dollars.”
Elliott McFadden, a resident of Austin who has spent his career working for progressive causes including affordable housing and access to health care. He is currently the executive director of a nonprofit bike-sharing program. McFadden is running to “restore Congress as an equal and independent legislative body, reform our electoral system so it will reflect the voice of voters, and invest in our people so we can all enjoy our country’s prosperity,” he writes on his campaign website.