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Scientist vying to replace climate denier Lamar Smith loses to former Ted Cruz chief of staff

Chip Roy has repeatedly questioned basic climate science.

House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX). CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX). CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Constituents of retiring long-time climate denier Texas Republican Congressman Lamar Smith are in for more of the same following Tuesday night’s results. The deeply conservative Chip Roy won out narrowly over Democrat Joseph Kopser, who leaned into science throughout his campaign.

In a surprisingly close race, Roy took in just over 50 percent of the vote to Kopser’s 47.5 percent as of Wednesday morning with all precincts reporting. The narrow victory marks a shift in Texas’ 21st congressional district, a gerrymandered area which has long been considered reliably conservative.

But Roy’s victory still means TX-21 is in for a continuation of climate denial. Roy has dismissed “the hysteria around climate change” and indicated he aligns himself with Smith’s views on global warming and science more broadly.

Smith has held his seat in Texas’ gerrymandered 21st district for more than three decades. During that time, he has repeatedly denied climate change and used his position as House Science, Space, and Technology chairman to target scientific research. But Smith announced his retirement in November 2017, throwing TX-21 for a loop.

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The subsequent race between Kopser and Roy offered voters a choice between two wildly opposing men. In September, ThinkProgress profiled Kopser, an army veteran with a degree in aerospace engineering who emphasized repeatedly that he believed in science — as well as climate change.

Kopser, supported by 314 Action, a group that empowers scientists to seek political office, ran an unusual campaign, working to appeal to voters across the political divide. Catering to the realities of a district cutting from San Antonio’s suburbs to Austin an hour and a half away, Kopser sounded the same messages of unity touted by Democratic Senate hopeful Beto O’Rourke, who lost narrowly to Republican Ted Cruz on Tuesday.

Speaking with ThinkProgress, Kopser highlighted that he intended to cater to no political party, all while throwing his weight behind traditional progressive stances on issues like abortion, health care, LGBTQ rights, and the environment.

Roy’s campaign, meanwhile, took a radically different approach. A former chief of staff for Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, Roy has close ties to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and former Gov. Rick Perry. The deeply conservative candidate also served as director for the Center for Tenth Amendment Action at the Texas Public Policy Foundation — a right-wing think tank that has endorsed hardline anti-climate policies.

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While he began his race confidently, the path to victory for Roy became increasingly uncertain in the weeks leading up to the election, as Kopser cut into his opponent’s lead. TX-21 is a rapidly changing district, and residents speculated two months ago that an influx of people of color and young people might spell dramatic changes for the district in the long run.

College voters expressed enthusiasm for Kopser last September, pointing to his views on science and the environment as a key reason for their support. But even then, many indicated they knew the candidate had an uphill battle ahead of him in a state where Republicans have ruled throughout the 21st century.

Smith’s departure, however, does have dramatic implications for U.S. science policy. With Democrats back in control of the House of Representatives, Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Texas Democrat, appears set to serve as the next chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

In a statement on Tuesday night, Johnson laid out her priorities, which include revamping U.S. innovation and encouraging diverse representation in STEM fields. Most notably for climate advocates, Johnson highlighted the need to “address the challenge of climate change, starting with acknowledging it is real, seeking to understand what climate science is telling us, and working to understand the ways we can mitigate it.”