Why you should care
Because he could give Democrats a model to win Texas.
When Joseph Kopser was in high school, he liked to imitate Alex P. Keaton, the Reagan-loving Young Republican played by Michael J. Fox on Family Ties. Kopser’s GOP affinity lasted until he was halfway through college at West Point, when, inspired by a speech by the president of the American Civil Liberties Union, he became a progressive.
Kopser explains this while driving a Mercedes through downtown Austin, on the way to an event where he’ll get a chance to meet Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a moment his staff will duly disseminate on social media. There’s a hint of defensiveness in Kopser’s voice, as the congressional hopeful’s Democratic primary race is in its chippy phase ahead of Tuesday’s vote.
You see great leadership and charisma, but he’s got the political flair that you generally don’t see in Army dudes.
Craig Cummings, longtime friend of Joseph Kopser’s
Aside from grip-and-grins with Warren and then-President Barack Obama, Kopser thinks his conversion story and track record prove he’s a Democrat — and one who can win and thrive in Washington by relating to those across the aisle. “I’m not trying to kowtow to these people that are accusing me of being a Republican today, because as the great Eminem might say: ‘I am whatever you say I am.’”
For national Democrats he’s a dream candidate: Army veteran, tech entrepreneur, compelling delivery on the stump, gobs of donations in his campaign bank account. It’s the recipe Democrats believe gives them a rare opportunity to win a seat that stretches from Austin to San Antonio, while jutting out into Hill Country. After Republican Rep. Lamar Smith announced he’s retiring after 30 years, his turf became a battleground for energized Democrats and a pack of 18 Republicans drawing blood on their side of the ballot. The Cook Political Report declares that Kopser “could pull off an upset in a wave.” But first he has to convince the small universe of Democratic primary voters that he’s one of them — and not Alex P. Keaton in a Texas Longhorns cap.
Growing up in Lexington, Kentucky, Kopser wanted to be an astronaut, and decided the military was the most promising route. A recruiter convinced him West Point was a better fit than the Air Force Academy, and he could still study aerospace engineering. So when did he give up the astronaut dream? “I’m young, still only 47. Who knows? I might get up in space before you know it.”
He’s only half kidding. Kopser brought a relentlessness to everything he pursued, from Ranger School to a master’s from Harvard to teaching politics at West Point to a 14-month tour of Iraq — where he led a 1,100-person unit. Married with three daughters, he squeezes the maximum out of every moment, to the point where longtime friend Craig Cummings jokes that even Kopser’s bathroom trips are scheduled down to the minute.
While in his final Army assignment teaching at the University of Texas at Austin in 2011, he launched RideScout, an app allowing users to plot commute times via various modes of transportation. After RideScout took off, earning Kopser a Champions of Change award from President Obama for his efforts to fight climate change, he sold the company to Daimler AG, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz.
As he helped smooth the transition at Daimler and started speaking to bigger crowds, Cummings — Kopser’s RideScout co-founder and West Point classmate — encouraged his pal to chart a new course. “You see great leadership and charisma, but he’s got the political flair that you generally don’t see in Army dudes,” Cummings says.
Kopser’s chief competition in Tuesday’s four-way Democratic primary is Derrick Crowe, a former Capitol Hill aide who has the backing of national progressive groups such as the Bernie Sanders–inspired Our Revolution. “We have a general disagreement on what the word ‘progressive’ means,” Crowe says, citing Kopser’s service on the board of the Texas Association of Businesses. (Kopser says even though TAB advocates mostly conservative policies, it’s important for a liberal to have a seat at the table.)
At a forum in the small town of Boerne, the other Democratic contenders challenge the notion that the district can only be won by running to the middle. Kopser stands, taking command of the skeptical room with a stage whisper: “I’ll tell you a little secret — they’re talking about me.”
What bothers Kopser most are the environmental attacks. He worked on clean energy projects in the Army, and launched RideScout in part to fight “our addiction to foreign oil,” which he witnessed in Iraq. And yet he’s denounced for not being far enough to the left. His response when activists grill him about natural gas exploration: “No, I will not call for a ban on fracking” — and, sitting in his campaign office, Kopser shoots a glance at campaign manager Ian Rivera before adding — “overnight.” Still, he says, “I can understand why some people boo me, but then my next question is: Did you drive here in your gasoline-powered car? And then they usually don’t answer me.”
By Kopser’s own account, there are three phases to getting to know him: First, you love his gregariousness. Then you’re annoyed by his relentlessness. Then you are won over by his sincerity and work ethic — assuming you last that long. “Not everybody enjoys it and not everybody likes to stick around,” he acknowledges, as staff members laugh knowingly from the back seat of the car.
If enough voters stick with him through this ride, and Kopser pulls off a November upset, his victory could serve as a model for Democrats across a fast-changing state and launch talk about higher office. “I don’t know how you hold that brother back,” Cummings says of Kopser. And if this political thing falls through, there’s always outer space.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Kopser’s position on the minimum wage and how his unit was constructed in Iraq.