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Could a Democrat scientist fill this Texas congressional seat held by a climate denier for decades?

Lamar Smith is retiring. Joseph Kopser wants to offer TX-21 a new vision.

Joseph Kopser pitches himself to would-be supporters. CREDIT: E.A. Crunden
Joseph Kopser pitches himself to would-be supporters. CREDIT: E.A. Crunden

AUSTIN, TEXAS — Crowded around a circular wooden table in a loud bar on Sunday night, Joseph Kopser raises his voice in an effort to be heard, as rock music duels with a football game on several large television screens.

Surrounded by energy and environmental experts, the Democrat campaigning to represent Texas’ 21st congressional district is trying to nail down what questions he should ask at an upcoming event. The gathering itself will focus on issues like renewable energy and sustainability, but as with everything else in this district, phrasing will be tricky.

“The term ‘climate change’ will shut them all down,” says Kopser pointedly. “What are the words I should use to keep the conversation going?”

“Stewardship,” one man suggests. “Emphasize preserving the land.” Kopser points and nods. Bingo.

To say that TX-21 is a Republican stronghold is an understatement. For progressives, the area is a shrine to the gerrymandering that has seen the state sliced and diced, largely to the benefit of conservative candidates. This district stretches from just north of the city of San Antonio all the way into Austin, an hour and a half away. It is over this extensive area that Rep. Lamar Smith (R) has held sway for more than three decades.

A map of TX-21 in Kopser headquarters. CREDIT: E.A. Crunden
A map of TX-21 in Kopser headquarters. CREDIT: E.A. Crunden

This year, Smith is retiring. During his time as a congressman, Smith has repeatedly rejected long-established climate science, earning a reputation as a climate denier among his peers. 

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Now, Kopser — an army veteran with a background in technology and renewable energy — wants to be the one to take his place, something his website makes very clear.

“The main motivation for my campaign was to unseat Congressman Lamar Smith, one of American politics’ principal opponents of objective reality and fact-based scientific inquiry,” the Democratic candidate states matter-of-factly, laying out his platform.

That goal predates Smith’s retirement announcement and Kopser is now facing Chip Roy, the former chief of staff for Sen. Ted Cruz (R) and an avowed hardline conservative. Cruz has repeatedly called his own opponent, Beto O’Rourke, a socialist, part of an effort to turn off conservative voters — and this is a tactic that Roy has employed as well, claiming Kopser is running a far-left campaign.

Kopser, who has run a campaign largely centered around drawing in voters of all political hues, scoffs at this. “He doesn’t want to debate me,” he says of Roy, who has largely shot down opportunities to face off publicly against Kopser. “He doesn’t want that contrast for moderates and independents.”

For some, Kopser is an unusual candidate. Conservatives have argued the tech entrepreneur and father of three daughters is too liberal; some progressives say he quietly leans to the right, a suspicion fueled by the Iraq War veteran’s military history and emphasis on reaching across the aisle.

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That latter argument has followed him even after his victory in the state’s Democratic primary last spring. Kopser has taken more than a few controversial stances, including expressing support for heightened border control at a time when communities throughout Texas live in fear of both state and U.S. immigration crackdowns.

But he has also embraced a number of more progressive initiatives. Kopser has expressed strong support for Austin’s paid sick leave policy, which City Council members approved in February, making the city the first in the South to have such a requirement. In the time since, Kopser has pushed back against challenges to the policy by the state government. 

Kopser also supports abortion rights and funding for Planned Parenthood, in addition to opposing Trump’s border wall and so-called “bathroom bills” targeting transgender Texans.  

The candidate’s supporters say his nuances allow him to transcend partisan divisions, winning over more conservative voters. Above all, they say, he is a scientist.

That background has greatly influenced Kopser’s focus. He holds a degree in aerospace engineering from West Point and his interests in science and technology have largely shaped his platform.

Speaking to the potential for renewable energy, Kopser tells ThinkProgress, “The biggest priority I have is communicating to this district [that] we have a real chance, TX-21, to be a leader in this future economy.”

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That’s a dramatic shift from what the district is used to. During his tenure in Washington, Smith has established himself as a thorn in the sides of environmentalists and scientists alike. The staunchly conservative lawmaker has pushed for regulation rollbacks at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in addition to overseeing a multi-year effort to undermine the use of confidential scientific data in U.S. policy-making, to the horror of health and green advocates alike. 

For many, Smith personifies President Donald Trump’s signature opposition to both science and environmental regulations. His retirement offers an opening — one many hope Kopser can capitalize on.

Joshua Morrow, executive director of the group 314 Action, which encourages and empowers scientists to run for office, points to the Kopser campaign as a picture perfect example of science fighting back against Trump-era policies and rhetoric.

“In this race you have such a stark contrast on this issue. A guy who’s denying climate change even exists, [Roy] says we’re in a ‘cooling off’ period,” Morrow tells ThinkProgress. “He’s wrong on the science. Whereas someone like Joseph, he actually understands these issues.”

But understanding the issues may not be enough in TX-21, something Morrow readily acknowledges while remaining upbeat.

“[There are] certain races where you have candidates that are tailor-made for their districts, this is one of those races,” he says. “He’s an army vet, but also a scientist. He can speak to these issues with a real understanding. He’s not a career politician. Chip Roy has been in politics most of his life.”

While Kopser would move the district in a new direction, Roy would likely be more of the same. In addition to working for Cruz, Roy has also served under Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and former Gov. Rick Perry, now the U.S. energy secretary. And he most recently served as the director for the Center for Tenth Amendment Action at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. The Austin-based conservative think tank, which endorses hardline anti-climate policies, has come to assert outsized influence over the Trump administration.

Kopser’s policies are a dramatic contrast from Roy, but the Democrat multitasks his messaging, even pointing to his military record as the source of his passion for renewable energy.

“The first time I went to Iraq, I realized just how addicted the world is to oil,” he tells ThinkProgress. “It just drove me crazy that we would send soldiers over, risk their lives to protect the free flow of oil, lose lives, lose limbs. And the American people don’t really comprehend that that’s why we’re there.”

And Kopser is sure to make his feelings about the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks very clear.

“They pulled out of the Paris accords, they pulled out of the Clean Power Plan. Basically if Obama touched it, they’re trying to pull out of it,” he says wryly.

Opposition to Trump-style rhetoric is growing more popular, even in deep-red Texas, and it’s yielding results. Pointing to fellow veterans Gina Ortiz Jones and MJ Hegar, both Texans running for other congressional districts, Kopser emphasizes the momentum in the state this year. But rather than using the term “blue wave,” so often trumpeted by national media, he instead nods to the need for new ideas in Washington, something he says is necessary for change.

Polishing his messaging on Sunday as the bar’s music winds down, Kopser returns to science before heading home. “I’m an innovator, I’m an engineer,” he says. “I like tinkering with things, I want to know what works, what makes things better.”