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Balance of power shifts after US midterm elections

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Angry, disillusioned, frustrated – all words used to describe the state of the American electorate going into last night’s US midterm elections. The combination proved to be the undoing of congressional Democrats, who were trounced at the polls, losing their majority control of the US House Representatives. Republicans, who gained over 60 seats in the House, were the beneficiaries of the biggest shift in decades. In the Senate, Democrats retained a bare majority, ensuring a divided Congress. The outcome means that US president Barack Obama will now have an even tougher time advancing his agenda than he had during his first two years in office.

The seismic shift was just as pronounced at the state level, with Republican gubernatorial candidates sweeping into office in at least eight states that had previously been in the Democrats’ column, including Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Mexico. Only California defied the trend, denying Republican candidate and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman in her bid to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor.

For scientists and for US research in general, the divided Congress coupled with widespread public concern over government spending suggests a period of flattened budgets or reduced funding lies ahead. Areas where science finds itself brushing up against politics – such as climate change and stem cell research – could be locked in legislative stalemate, with no significant changes in the offing for the next two years. In the House, key committee chairmanships will now shift to the Republican side.

Here are some of the specific races and outcomes where science and science related issues played a role:


Delaware Senate race: Tea-party backed newcomer Christine O’Donnell made headlines in September when she defeated moderate Mike Castle – known for cosponsoring legislation supporting human embryonic stem cell research – in the battle for the Republican nomination. Yet O’Donnell, who was mocked for claims she made on Fox television three years ago that scientists in the US were breeding humans with animals and “coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains”, did not go over well with the broader electorate in her state. She lost to Democrat Chris Coons, who led the race by more than 16%. The victory helped keep Republicans from taking the Senate.

West Virginia Senate race: The coal-producing state was expected to be a key battleground following the death of Democratic incumbent Robert Byrd earlier this year. Democratic candidate and state governor Joe Manchin made it clear to voters that he does not support many of his party’s policies. In a campaign ad he loads a rifle and shoots a document labeled “Cap and Trade Bill”. The strategy worked. Manchin retained the seat for Democrats by a 10% margin over his Republican rival. He can be expected to take a tough stance on any efforts to cap carbon emissions.

Wisconsin State race: Wisconsin is a hub for stem cell research, a theme that became a campaign issue in the gubernatorial race when Republican candidate Scott Walker told an anti-abortion group that he supports a ban on research involving human embryonic stem cells. Walker later said he would prefer to see money directed, instead, towards adult stem cell work. The position led to a war of words with his Democratic rival over which type of research is more promising. Although scientists voiced their concerns about Walker’s statements, the Republican won 52% of the vote and he becomes governor.

Illinois 14th Congressional District: Democrat Bill Foster, a particle physicist who spent more than two decades at Fermilab, was defeated last night by his Republican rival, Randy Hultgren. Foster was elected to Congress just two years ago in a victory that seemed to symbolize a shift in US politics toward more evidence-based policy. His tenure has turned out to be short-lived, as Foster, like many House democrats, was unable to withstand this year’s anti-incumbent wave.

Arizona Proposition 106: Last night voters passed an amendment to the state’s constitution that would prohibit “the enactment of laws or rules that require any person, employer or health care provider to participate in any health care system”. Although the measure is superseded by federal law, it can be read as a direct rejection of the Obama administration-supported health care reforms passed earlier this in the US Congress. The vote suggests that future battles over the health care law, which includes provisions for research into the comparative effectiveness of different therapies, will be playing out in court.

Colorado Amendment 62: Known as the Fetal Personhood Amendment, the measure aimed to extend human rights to every person from “the beginning of the biological development of that human being.” In practice it would place abortion and human embryonic stem cell research in the same category and render both illegal. The measure was defeated soundly. Significantly, the proportion of votes against – amounting to 72% of the total – is almost identical to the outcome of a similar vote in 2008. The result indicates voters haven’t changed their minds on this particular issue despite an overall shift in the country to the right.

California Proposition 23: An initiative that would roll back state legislation on greenhouse gas emissions was defeated, despite arguments that the 2006 law was harmful to the state’s economy. The defeat, coupled with the Democrats’ failure to enact climate legislation in the US Senate this past session means that California will likely continue to be far out in front of the US as a whole on climate and energy related laws. Despite a well-financed challenge from former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, Californians also returned Democrat Barbara Boxer to the Senate, a prominent advocate of climate reforms.

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