IRVINE, Calif. — Neuroscientist Hans Keirstead walks through his gleaming steel and glass laboratory here showcasing the high-tech tools that have made him a fortune pioneering stem cell cancer treatments.
But now, after three decades in high-stakes medical research, he is focused on a new and daunting political challenge: ousting 15-term lawmaker Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.).
"He’s a climate change denier. I find that odd when 96 percent of the world’s scientists believe climate change is happening and that humans contribute to it," said Keirstead, a political newcomer who made more than $100 million selling one of his companies in 2014.
"I think his scientific acumen is demonstrated quite blatantly with his climate change position. … It’s totally, totally ridiculous," he told E&E News during a recent interview.
Keirstead — whose unique scientific background and solid fundraising has put him at the top of a crowded field of challengers to Rohrabacher — ticks off a list of science issues where he believes voters will side with him over the incumbent, who sits on the House Science, Space and Technology panel.
That includes spending for weather satellites, money for scientific research grants at the National Institutes of Health and environmental protections.
"When you cut funding for research and development later you see fewer companies being born," said Keirstead, 51, a Canadian immigrant who received federal grants for his stem cell research at the University of California, Irvine.
He believes voters from both parties support a strong federal role for science, especially when it’s tied to where they live and when they see economic benefits.
Keirstead, who has raised more than $400,000, is not alone. In a cluster of House races in Southern California, Democratic House challengers with scientific backgrounds and environmental interests are becoming as common as the region’s endless traffic jams and sun-kissed beaches.
Indeed, in five seats held by Republicans — stretching from the outskirts of San Diego to just north of Los Angeles — among the dozens of Democrats seeking to emerge from next June’s crowded primaries are a stem cell researcher, a pediatrician, a volcanologist, a former technology adviser to the Obama White House and an environmental lawyer who has worked with clean energy startups.
Democrats see the races as crucial to any chance they have next year of picking up the 24 seats they would need to win control of the House for the first time since 2010.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for the first time has set up shop in Orange County, a traditionally GOP stronghold that is part of or touches all five districts. They believe an anti-President Trump wave is building in a county that Hillary Clinton was the first Democrat to carry since 1936.
"The importance of these races in California cannot be exaggerated," said Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), chairman of the DCCC.
"I am certain constituents will want to know where their candidates stand on clean air and water issues," he said, "especially considering drought issues and the fires we are seeing now in different parts of California, it’s vital."
With a Republican in the White House who has dismissed climate change as a "hoax" and failed to appoint a top scientific adviser, California Democratic candidates believe running on pragmatic, science-based policies that favor environment and clean energy policies could help shift the balance of power in Washington.
If it works, the Golden State that has long led the nation in environmental protection policies could help make science and the environment a top campaign issue for Democrats nationwide.
Rohrabacher, 69, who was first elected in 1988, doubts the climate or environmental issues will resonate much with voters in his district, despite it covering a long stretch of Southern California beachfront.
"In terms of whether or not my district believes that CO2 causes the planet to change or not, I don’t think they do. Those who do have known me a long time, they know me, and they are not adamant and religious about it like the liberals are," Rohrabacher, a former speechwriter for President Reagan, told E&E News in a recent interview.
Environmentalists have long bashed Rohrabacher for his comments that climate change could have been caused by "dinosaur flatulence." He has since said it was a joke, but greens and his opponents frequently cite it in calls for his ouster.
Rohrabacher said he’ll emphasize his record as a former Science subcommittee chairman, where he championed commercial space exploration and patent reforms that protect inventors.
The lawmaker said both initiatives have paid off for his district, which has a large presence of both large and small aerospace and technology companies.
Harley Rouda, 56, a wealthy businessman who is also in the top tier of Rohrabacher challengers, is making an economic counterargument for keeping the incumbent in office.
The first-time candidate notes China has begun investing in clean energy technologies, and studies increasingly show it will cost more money over the long haul to do nothing than to fight global warming now.
"A lot of Democrats fail to make the underlying economic argument," said Rouda, who is hoping his success turning a family real estate company into one of the nation’s largest residential listing firms, Realstir, will appeal to more centrist voters.
Rouda has put his money where his mouth is by giving $175,000 to his campaign, while also raising more than $300,000.
Many Democratic activists also believe Rohrabacher’s longtime support for Russia and its leaders could hurt him given ongoing investigations into foreign interference into U.S. elections.
But Rohrabacher, who boasts of having lost an arm-wrestling match decades ago to a young Russian President Vladimir Putin, isn’t worried about the connection.
"I am unabashedly advocating we try to cooperate and work with Russia rather than vilify it all the time," he said. "I think that is pretty well understood in my district, and I don’t think I have anything to worry about."
Several political operatives agree Rohrabacher’s climate and Russia views are out of step with his increasingly moderate constituency.
A 2016 survey by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found more than 70 percent of the voters in his district believe in climate change.
But Republicans believe the flinty, libertarian’s fondness for riding the local waves and his pro-marijuana views still make him a formidable foe, even as political pundits increasingly rate the race next year a toss-up.
GOP boosters note Rohrabacher won in 2016 by more than 15 points, despite Clinton’S narrow victory. He also has wide name recognition, and his fundraising has picked up, with more than $850,000 raised for 2018.
Rohrabacher is also happy to play the part that has won him the nickname "the surfing congressman." "I am frankly a guy who never wears a tie, and I always wear my puka shells," said Rohrabacher, undoing his tie and collar just off the House floor to show off a shell necklace popular with surfers.
In the neighboring district south of Rohrabacher’s, Rep. Darrell Issa, who won the narrowest re-election of any incumbent last year, is taking a different tact.
As the nine-term Republican faces what’s expected to be a highly competitive Democratic challenge, he’s going green to keep his seat red.
"Fiscal responsibility and good stewardship of our natural resources don’t have to be mutually exclusive," said Issa in March, announcing he was joining the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus to work on "solutions" that maintain a strong economy while "taking care of our environment."
Issa, who has a 4 percent lifetime rating from the League of Conservation Voters, is now criticizing President Trump for pulling out of the Paris climate accord and is against any cuts to the U.S. EPA budget.
Mike Levin, 39, an environmental attorney who kicked off his by campaign sending Issa the illustrated book "Climate Change for Beginners," isn’t buying the shift.
"There’s a difference between rhetoric and reality. He can join whatever caucus he likes, but how does he vote? And last I looked, he’s done nothing to stand up to the desecration to our environment caused by forces on the right," said Levin, who has worked with several clean-energy startups.
Democrats are betting environmental-minded voters have not forgotten that when Issa led the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee from 2011 to 2014, EPA was a frequent target of his ire.
He threatened to hold the head of the agency, Gina McCarthy, in contempt for not responding to subpoena requests, held hearings to highlight EPA employees who watched online pornography at work and warned that Obama-era curbs on climate emissions would kill jobs.
Levin and the race’s other top Democratic challenger, attorney Doug Applegate, who lost to Issa by less than 1,500 votes in 2016, agree that the incumbent’s environmental record will be an issue.
They believe sea-level rise is a real concern to coastal voters as cleaning up leftover radioactive waste from the decommissioned San Onofre nuclear reactor in the district continues.
"I say, ‘Darryl, you have been in office 16 years, you have not done spit about San Onofre,’" said Applegate, who announced within weeks of the 2016 race being settled that he was seeking a rematch.
Applegate says Issa backs shipping the waste to Yucca Mountain in Nevada, a repository that he doubts will be built. Issa has also supported turning it over to a private contractor, a move that Applegate calls "felony stupid."
Applegate, a longtime Marine Corps reserve colonel who served in Iraq, said the military has been a leader for at least the past 15 years in warning about the national security impacts of climate change.
"I don’t know why Democrats have not said, ‘Let’s co-op this, wrap ourselves in national security and win the day’" on climate, said Applegate.
Nearly all political observers rate the race as a toss-up, but equally competitive is the Democratic primary. Clinton won the district by 7 points last year, and GOP voters no longer hold a majority, with big gains among Democrats and independents in recent years.
Applegate, 63, a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in 2016 who has raised more than $500,000 for the rematch, believes name recognition from his first run and his military ties make him the favorite.
But he remains dogged by allegations he harassed his wife during a contentious divorce more than a decade ago, an issue Issa highlighted late in the 2016 campaign that may have helped him hold the seat.
Levin, 39, who references Applegate’s divorce by noting his candidacy has been endorsed by the National Organization for Women, volunteered for Clinton’s campaign and has tapped that network to raise more than $900,000. Levin also says his two terms as the leader of the Orange County Democratic Party guarantee he won’t be out organized.
Issa, 63, whose campaign declined requests for comment, already has raised $1.2 million. Several operatives note that Issa is one of the wealthiest members of the House and could pump his own money into the race.
A wild card is businessman Paul Kerr, who only entered the race in July but has so far put $262,000 of his own cash into the campaign. He has raised more than $200,000.
Running on science
While Issa and Rohrabacher face the most potential blowback from environmentalists, several other Democrats are hoping they can push science concerns to the front of voters’ minds to take out Republican seat holders.
Mai-Khanh Tran, 51, a Vietnamese-American pediatrician who fled on one of the last flights out of Saigon before the city fell in 1975, is challenging House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) for his suburban Los Angeles seat. She is emphasizing her background in science, particularly how environmental issues affect her patients.
"As a pediatrician, I see the impact of climate almost every day," said Tran during an interview with E&E News. "When the Santa Ana winds blow and there is a wildfire, my office is full of wheezing kids. It’s a daily reminder that we need clean water and clean air."
The district has been among those hit by wildfires in recent months.
Royce has been more moderate than some in the GOP, saying the U.S. should stay in the Paris Agreement. The 13-term incumbent joined the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus this summer.
But Tran, a first-time candidate, counters Royce has voted 96 percent of the time with Trump, including on backing his environmental regulation rollbacks.
Tran, whose background could play well in a district with a large Asian population, has raised more than $400,000 and is being backed by Emily’s List.
But she faces two, deep-pocketed Democratic challengers in health executive Andy Thorburn, who has already poured $2 million into the race, and Gil Cisneros, who won $266 million in the Mega Millions lottery and has given his own campaign $500,000.
Rep. Steven Knight (R-Calif.), whose district includes a town, Porter Ranch, that suffered the worse methane leak in U.S. history in 2016, is facing several challengers after winning his second term in 2016 by 6 points in a district Clinton won by 7 points.
One of his challengers, Jess Phoenix, 35, a volcanologist who now runs an education nonprofit, has focused on the need for more scientists to be elected. She has hit Knight for waiting two months before responding to his constituents in Porter Ranch, who were being "poisoned" by the leak.
She has never run for office before but opted in after Trump’s rejection of what she says is "scientific fact" on several topics, among them global warming.
"If we have people with a seat at the table who don’t understand [the importance of science], then we will be at a disadvantage globally," Phoenix told E&E News in an interview.
However, after generating attention early as a telegenic scientist who has explored volcanoes on six continents, Phoenix has seen her stock fall as her political fundraising has lagged below $100,000.
Knight’s more formidable opponent is the man he beat in 2016, Bryan Caforio, an attorney. The Democrat narrowly outraised Knight in the recently ended third quarter and already has collected close to $300,000 for the rematch.
Knight, 51, who has a zero percent lifetime score from LCV, wants to seem moderate on climate issues. In July, Knight joined the Climate Solutions Caucus, saying he wanted to work on "commonsense" legislation favored by his constituents who prize the district’s vast valleys and natural resources.
Another California House Republican, Mimi Walters, is facing several challengers after Clinton carried her inland Orange County district by more than 5 points, after previous GOP candidates Mitt Romney and John McCain took it by comfortable margins. Walters won her own race by 17 points last year.
Among her Democratic opponents is Brian Forde, 37, a former top technology adviser to President Obama who has raised more than $400,000 for the race.
He is emphasizing the economics of environmentalism, saying more investments are needed in fighting climate change and renewable energy.
Walters, 55, who has a 5 percent LCV lifetime rating in a district that includes the Santa Ana Mountains wilderness, has — like other GOP incumbents in the region — sought to showcase her support for the environment by joining the Climate Solutions Caucus in recent months.
314 Action, a political action committee raising money for scientists running for office, believes the president’s views on science will help make global warming a major issue in 2018.
The group is expected to raise $5 million to $7 million for local, state and federal candidates and is already backing Tran and Keirstead.
"It’s very hard to get the support from Democratic donors when you don’t come from a traditional background," said Shaughnessy Naughton, a former chemist who launched the PAC after failing in her own bids to represent Pennsylvania in Congress in 2014 and 2016.
Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, is well aware of the Democrats’ push in Southern California and the emphasis on science and environmental issues.
But he says he feels "good" about the GOP incumbents, who have their own "independent brands" and long track records winning re-elections in an expensive media market.
Democrats will "spend a lot of money in Southern California, but I don’t think they’ll win a lot of races," Stivers added.
Nathan Gonzales, a nonpartisan political analyst, said Democrats have done well in attracting a large field of challengers in California but warns environmental and science issues alone won’t win back the House.
"Democrats use climate change and the environment to portray Republicans as knuckle-dragging Neanderthals," he said. "It could play with the base, but I am not sure if it’s the issue that decides the 2018 election."