The fight over the makeup of Congress continues next week with primary elections on 7 August in four states. As part of our yearlong series on scientists running for Congress, here’s a look at three Democrats from districts in Washington, Michigan, and Missouri who are seeking the chance to face a Republican opponent in the 6 November general election.
Shannon Hader: Public health expert wants to treat body politic
Shannon Hader oozes experience in public health at many levels. She’s led the U.S. government’s $1.1-billion-a-year global fight against HIV and tuberculosis at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, after a previous stint leading CDC’s effort in Zimbabwe. She has turned around a troubled HIV/AIDS program run by Washington, D.C. She’s been a senior executive for a Washington, D.C.–based health care firm that supports CDC projects around the world. A pediatrician with a master’s degree in public health, she also recently spent a year as a congressional fellow.
Those posts have given her an inside look at the power of government to do good—and to do harm. In January, Hader decided to play a more visible role in trying to ensure the first outcome, declaring her candidacy for Congress in Washington’s eighth congressional district.
A Democrat, Hader says she was prompted to run by the actions of President Donald Trump “to undercut science and to dismantle programs that are important to our community health.” And she takes those attacks personally. “I believe that government can and should work for the people. And I’ve helped make it work,” says Hader, who resigned from CDC last fall, in advance of launching her campaign. “But I’ve also seen where it is broken and not working at all.”
The race to succeed the retiring incumbent, seven-term Republican Dave Reichert, is considered a toss-up by political analysts. “I would say that this is the best chance the Democrats have to win here in decades,” said Todd Schaefer, a professor of political science at Central Washington University in Ellensburg.
There are four strong contenders, three Democrats and one Republican. Washington’s top-two primary rules, in theory, could allow two Democrats to square off in November. But pundits expect Republican Dino Rossi, who has a lengthy resume of both winning and losing bids for state and national posts, to capture one spot. That leaves Hader, pediatrician Kim Schrier, and attorney Jason Rittereiser to battle it out in a district that covers both the exurbs east of Seattle and more rural areas across the Cascade Mountains, including Ellensburg.
All four candidates have built up impressive war chests. As of 30 June, Rossi led with nearly $3 million, twice what Schrier has raised. Rittereiser clocked in at $850,000, with Hader close behind, although $420,000 of her $825,000 total is from a personal loan.
The candidates have drawn backing from different sectors of the voting population. Hader has piled up endorsements from local Democratic organizations, while Rittereiser has the backing of several labor groups. Schrier has been endorsed by Planned Parenthood and EMILY’s List, a national advocacy group that backs women running for office who support abortion rights. She’s also received support and an official endorsement from 314 Action, a nonprofit that helps scientists run for office.
Among her public health peers, Hader is seen as someone who relishes a challenge and then delivers. “No one in their right mind would have wanted that job [at the D.C. Department of Health],” says Adam Tenner, a Washington, D.C.–based consultant who led a program to serve teenagers with AIDS in 2007, when Hader took the gig. “We were, from my perspective, the laughingstock of American cities when it came it epidemiology.” But Hader turned things around, he says, by “bringing in really thoughtful money, resources, and researchers to help us better understand our epidemic.”
Vaccination becomes an issue
In the waning days of a race in which one local political analyst described the three Democrats as having “only nuanced differences on issues,” Hader took a dramatic step to separate herself from Schrier with a mailer attacking the pediatrician’s stance on childhood vaccinations. The mailer cites a candidates’ forum in March in which Schrier disagreed with the statement: “The government should require children to be vaccinated for preventable diseases.” Hader’s ad declares that “a pediatrician should know better. A policymaker must know better.”
Schrier called out Hader for the mailer last week at another forum, labeling it “a big fat lie … [and] a piece of garbage.” Schrier says, “Giving vaccinations is one of the most important things that I do as a pediatrician,” adding that she’s a “100% supporter of vaccines and anything that makes the vaccinated population larger.”
But Hader hasn’t backed down. She says Schrier only recently removed a policy statement from her website that endorsed a Washington law that grants vaccine exemptions for school-age children on religious and philosophical grounds. “As someone who knows the importance of a policy,” Hader says, “I’m concerned by Schrier’s failing to positively assert what she is for.”
Straight talk is Hader’s forte, says Tom Kenyon, her former boss at CDC. “She is a very strong communicator,” says Kenyon, who led CDC’s Center for Global Health before becoming CEO of Project HOPE, a nonprofit based in Millwood, Virginia, that deploys medical volunteers to deal with emergency health crises around the world. “She listens, she processes information, and then she helps people come up with solutions.”
Rich Eichholz: Biologist applies business model in Michigan race
As the CEO of a high-tech company and a veteran of the pharmaceutical industry, Rich Eichholz has learned that to succeed in business, you need to bring together people with opposing views. “Much of my experience has been involved in negotiating agreements between parties of very different viewpoints and goals,” says Eichholz, who holds a Ph.D. in cell biology.
The 70-year-old also has had lots of practice in “modeling competitive situations” to determine which path a company should take to achieve its goals. And he’s spent the past year using these skills to work on a personal goal: being elected to Congress.
Eichholz is one of four Democrats running in Michigan’s sixth congressional district, a mixed manufacturing and farming region in the southwestern tip of the state. The winner of the 7 August primary will go up against Republican incumbent Fred Upton, who has held the seat for 30 years. The race is considered a toss-up by political analysts.
Upton is the former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and remains an influential figure in the Republican-led chamber. But that status has also made him vulnerable, says John Clark, chair of the political science department at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, which sits within the district. “He had to deal with a lot of issues related to science, and I think his position on issues like climate change upset a lot of folks in this district,” Clark says.
A native of Chicago, Illinois, Eichholz majored in government at Cornell University and earned his doctoral degree in 1983 from the University of Illinois in Urbana. He spent the next 3 decades assessing technologies and market opportunities for life science and diagnostic companies, working at Amersham Biosciences, Abbott Laboratories, and the bioStrategies group, a business management firm in Chicago. In 2016, he became CEO of Qmulus, which provides cloud-based technology for charging electric vehicles.
None of the four Democrats in the race has ever held elective office, and Eichholz ranks third in fundraising as of 30 June with $177,000, lagging behind physician Matt Longjohn’s total of $625,000 and the $700,000 raised by George Franklin, a former top lobbyist for Michigan-based food giant Kellogg. In July, Longjohn received the endorsement of 314 Action. However, Eichholz says he benefitted from attending the organization’s workshops on campaign logistics.
Eichholz has made the economy, climate change, and universal health care the centerpieces of his campaign and emphasizes the importance of moving to renewable energy sources, universal health care, and fair wages. He believes those issues will help him connect with moderate Republicans and independents, if he can win the Democratic nomination.
Hallie Thompson: Budding plant scientist hopes to take root in Missouri
Hallie Thompson is still several months away from earning her doctoral degree in plant sciences at the University of Missouri (MU) in Columbia. But in January, she temporarily suspended her research on how corn responds to drought to confront what she believes is an even more pressing problem facing her state and the nation: members of Congress who she thinks have lost touch with their constituents. She decided to offer herself as a solution.
The 28-year-old has no prior political experience. Her campaign organization consists of a core team of about eight people and a small group of volunteers. She’s raised only a fraction of the money amassed by her opponent for the Democratic nomination in Missouri’s fourth congressional district, local businesswoman Renee Hoagenson. And then there’s the general election. The seat is now held by incumbent Vicky Hartzler (R), who has coasted to victory four times in this solidly Republican district.
So yes, Thompson is a long shot. “I have no illusions about how tough a challenge this district is,” she says. But she’s hoping that the skills she acquired as a lobbyist for a national graduate student association and her knowledge of the community where she grew up will help her to connect with voters and result in a victory on 7 August.
A fourth-generation Missourian, Thompson was raised on her family’s cattle farm in High Point. She majored in biochemistry at MU, but scrapped plans for medical school once she had a chance to do research as an undergraduate. She also became active in groups dealing with national science policy. As a graduate student, Thompson joined the policy committee of the American Society of Plant Biologists and headed up legislative affairs for the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students. “She’s young, she’s energetic, she’s caring,” says Gary Stacey, a professor of plant sciences and biochemistry at MU.
Thompson thinks her ties to the soil—both her professional studies and her rural upbringing—make her a good match for the district. She’d love the chance to apply that knowledge as a member of the House Committee on Agriculture, on which Hartzler now serves. She’s also campaigning on such bread-and-butter issues as accessible, affordable health care, expanding opportunities for higher education, and improved internet access for rural areas.
“I already represent the district,” she says about her background. “Now I want the chance to do it officially, as a member of Congress.”
*Correction, 1 August, 4:40 p.m.: The photo of Shannon Hader has been updated. An earlier caption on the photo of Rich Eichholz misidentified him, he is on the far left.