Amid Pandemic, Scientists Lean on Credentials in Political Races

Amid Pandemic, Scientists Lean on Credentials in Political Races

Although Cameron Webb decided to run for political office long before the pandemic started, his campaign appears to be made for times like these. The 37-year-old physician announced his bid to represent Virginia’s 5th congressional district last August, and he says the main thing on his mind then was repairing the country’s broken healthcare system. While seeing patients with diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease as an internist at the University of Virginia’s Department of Medicine, he witnessed the structural problems that contributed to his patients’ conditions, factors such as food insecurity, income inequality, and poor access to healthcare.

“I see those systems, those policies, failing people and manifesting in poor health outcomes, and that makes me want to address the policies rather than just keep treating sick patients,” Webb tells The Scientist. He adds that he was also motivated by mounting threats to the Affordable Care Act by President Donald Trump’s administration. Webb had helped work on the implementation of Obamacare as a White House Fellow under President Barack Obama. (He was also a Fellow under Trump.)

In June of this year, amid a raging pandemic and nationwide protests over racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police, Webb won the Democratic nomination after receiving two-thirds of the vote in a crowded primary. While he continues to treat COVID-19 patients in the clinic, Webb is now running in a close race against Republican nominee Bob Good to win over the large district, which voted for Trump in 2016 with 58 percent of the votes, after twice voting for Obama. Good had a long career in finance before taking a position as an athletic director at the evangelical Christian Liberty University, a position he left to pursue politics. If Webb wins on November 3, he’ll become the first Black physician in Congress.

The attacks on science didn’t start with the Trump administration, but they turned what felt like an attack on science to an all-out war on reality.

—Shaughnessy Naughton, 314 Action

More than 30 candidates with science-related backgrounds—engineers, chemists, physicians, and astronauts—have landed on the ballot for House and Senate races, of which most are seeking reelection for seats they already hold. And an all-time high of more than 170 candidates are running in state and local races across the country. Most Democrats are supported by 314 Action, a nonprofit political action committee created in 2016 to boost the representation of fact- and science-driven decision-makers in Washington and beyond. 314 Action does not endorse Republican candidates for congressional races due to what the organization perceives as a conflict between the party’s policy positions and the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change and other issues, although Republican candidates are able to take part in 314 Action’s campaign preparation training.

Shaughnessy Naughton, the founder and president of the organization, says she believes that candidates’ scientific backgrounds give them an advantage this year in particular, as the pandemic has underscored the importance of following scientific principles as well as the potential consequences of ignoring expertise.

Many doctors “got into the race because of the healthcare issues, but then perhaps have earned themselves a little bit more focus and credibility because of everything that’s happened since,” notes Jacob Rubashkin, a reporter and analyst at Inside Elections, which provides nonpartisan analysis of US elections. That said, “it’s hard to say what will or will not sway voters.”