Group seeks to elect Democrats with science backgrounds

This Dec. 24, 2020, file photo shows the U.S. Capitol is seen in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

RALEIGH — An advocacy group plans to spend millions next year to elect more Democrat doctors, scientists and other professionals to office. 314 Action, a nonprofit organization with offices in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., says it is aiming to spend $50 million in next year’s congressional races, much of it targeted at helping Democrats pick up competitive U.S. Senate seats in North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania. 

With the coronavirus pandemic at the front of Americans’ minds, 314 Action sees an opportunity to bring more attention to environmental and medical issues that it feels could be better addressed by policymakers who understand both politics and the science at play. 

Shaughnessy Naughton, a Democrat, formed 314 Action in 2016 after she ran for Congress from Pennsylvania and lost, has seen some early successes. 314 Action backed former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly for the U.S. Senate in Arizona and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a former geologist, for the Senate in 2020. The group was also an early supporter of registered nurse Lauren Underwood, who won her 2018 election for the U.S. House from Illinois and has since launched the Black Maternal Health Caucus.

The organization seeks to become the EMILY’s List for science-oriented candidates, adopting some of the Democratic women’s group’s model for recruiting, training and financially backing candidates. And 314 Action says it will get involved in contested Democratic primaries, where its influence can be most visible. The group hopes to raise and spend $50 million largely from individual donors in the 2022 midterms.

It has grown exponentially from 40,000 members at its 2016 founding to 400,000 in the 2018 midterms and now has a network of 6 million supporters. It raised $22 million during the 2020 election cycle.

The organization says it is preparing to spend millions in 2022 in Ohio supporting a potential candidate who rose to prominence during the pandemic. It also aims to help maintain and expand a Democratic Senate majority through independent expenditures and direct donations to candidates in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. 

Josh Morrow, 314 Action’s executive director, is trying to recruit Joan Higginbotham, the third black woman to go into space. She lives in Charlotte and has never run for public office. He wants Higginbotham to join a growing field of Democratic candidates vying to fill a U.S. Senate seat in North Carolina being vacated by Republican Richard Burr. Three announced candidates have science backgrounds. Erica Smith has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from N.C. A&T, Rett Newton is a doctoral student at Duke University’s Marine Lab and Richard Watkins holds a Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology from UNC Chapel Hill.

N.C. state Sen. Jeff Jackson, announced that his campaign for U.S. Senate had raised nearly $1.3 million since he entered the race in January. Jackson has bachelors and masters degrees in philosophy and a law degree. Another prominent Democrat, Cheri Beasley, is expected to formally enter the race soon. Beasley has a B.A. in political science and economics as well as a law degree. 

Dr. Amy Acton, a former state health director in Ohio, is considering a run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Rob Portman. Acton is a public health researcher whose COVID-19 briefings alongside Republican Gov. Mike DeWine last year got widespread attention. 

Acton, a 55-year-old Democrat, faced intense backlash in the Republican-dominated state over the restrictive health orders she signed. Armed protesters even showed up outside her suburban home.

“Just watching what she was doing with COVID, how she was handling the response, we were super impressed by her,” Morrow said.

Acton could face a formidable primary challenge from Tim Ryan, a veteran Democratic congressman who unsuccessfully ran for president in the 2020 cycle. Neither she nor Ryan has formally entered Ohio’s Senate race.

Republicans have had notable successes electing doctors to office: All the current doctors in the Senate are Republicans.