MJ Hegar is one of eleven Democrats vying for the chance to face incumbent John Cornyn in the 2020 U.S. Senate election. In an October poll of Democrats by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune, Hegar led the pack with 12 percent support. But the bigger takeaway from the poll might have been how few voters recognized the names of the candidates: even Hegar had just 20 percent name recognition. For Hegar, that means her campaign has to play offense on two fronts: explaining to voters who she is and why she believes Cornyn is bad for Texas.
“I hate talking about him,” says Hegar, who in 2018 narrowly lost a bid for Texas’s Thirty-First Congressional District to incumbent Republican John Carter. “It depresses me, but also because [Cornyn] has such a low name ID, I feel like I’m elevating him. I feel like more people are listening to me than him and they’re thinking, ‘John who? Oh yeah, that guy.’ He’s been a statewide politician here for nearly four decades and has very low name ID, which should tell you something about how much he’s leading and working.”
Ahead of the 2018 House race, Hegar introduced herself via a campaign ad titled “Doors.” The video focused on her military experience and fight to have the military overturn its ban on women in combat positions. The ad went viral and helped her raise $5.1 million. She wound up losing by just under 3 percent—impressive, considering that Carter had won reelection just two years earlier by a 22-point margin. Earlier this year, the New York Times introduced its readers to “The Woman You Missed While You Were Paying Attention to Beto” and concluded that “M.J. Hegar’s kind of like Ann Richards crossed with Barbara Bush—with a Purple Heart and a Distinguished Flying Cross.”
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Indeed, Hegar became a commissioned officer in the Air Force after graduating from the University of Texas and ultimately served three tours in Afghanistan as a combat search-and-rescue and medevac pilot. During a rescue mission in Afghanistan, her helicopter was destroyed by the Taliban. Injuries she sustained from enemy gunfire earned her the Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor, but also left her unable to continue flying. She says her fight against a Defense Department rule that prohibited women from serving in ground combat positions showed her that Washington was broken and inspired her congressional run.
On the National Podcast of Texas, we talk about the lessons of 2018’s Beto O’Rourke/Ted Cruz matchup, America’s gun culture, and how national politics might play into the Texas Senate race.
Three takeaways from our conversation:
1. Hegar doesn’t buy the theory that because the Senate contest isn’t the top-of-the-ballot race this year, much will depend upon which way the presidential race swings.
“Texas kind of operates as if we’re our own little country. Frankly, I’ve driven almost ten thousand miles over the last few months and talked to thousands of Texans. I have yet to bump into one that asks me about impeachment. It’s all, ‘How do we keep good teachers in rural Texas?’ or ‘How do I get access to health care?’ They want help getting food on the table. They’re worried about their kids with climate change and gun violence. Those are the things people are talking to me about. So regardless who’s at the top of the ticket, I know that when people go into the ballot box, and they know that they can choose between a guy who’s a career politician who has done nothing for them and who is serving his donors—the private prison industry and the gun lobby—or a working class, salt of the earth, blue collar, rurally raised combat veteran and a mom, I think that that’s going to be a very clear choice. People are seeing less left and right, and asking more, ‘Who looks like me, talks like me, represents me, and is going to help legislate solutions to the problems that I’ve faced?’”
2. Hegar believes that, maybe now more than ever, the time and money it takes to wage a political campaign keeps regular people from running.
“The biggest problem in our government is that even those people who are there that are good and well-intended, there’s too many people in positions to write legislation who have never experienced the challenges of regular people. They’re not worried about relying on Social Security or where are they going to get their health care. That’s because the political system is set up such that really it’s very difficult for regular working people to run for office. So I’m working hard to make it more accessible for regular working people to run for office. One of the things we did recently that I’m super-proud of is we built on the FEC decision that said that stay-at-home moms could use campaign funds for daycare to help enable them to be able to run for office. So we fought successfully to get working parents included in that because I think that’ll help men too because we have a lot of men that are parents and single dads, and we’ve got to allow and encourage them too. There’s a reason that you hear something like 90 percent of our country wants universal background checks, but we can’t get it passed legislatively. If we had a true representative democracy, 90 percent of our elected officials would want universal background checks. So something’s broken, and that’s what I think it is. There’s more that separates the top from the bottom than there is the left from the right.”
3. Hegar has called for an end to open carry and believes it’s antithetical to the cause of gun owners looking to preserve their Second Amendment rights.
“They’re hurting their own cause. When you feel the need to push an automatic rifle in someone’s face to protect your own Second Amendment right, you are pushing people further away. The gun violence epidemic also extends way beyond mass shootings to domestic violence, suicide, and kids finding guns. I have a history with domestic violence myself. I have toddlers in my home, and I’m a gun owner. And, as a veteran, I’m a member of a community that has a very high suicide rate. So all of those things have touched my life. And so I know that we have to get a handle on that to protect our children. And it’s effective to talk to people who maybe aren’t moved by protecting our children and explain to them that it’s also simultaneously the greatest threat to their Second Amendment rights.”