AUSTIN — MJ Hegar has no track record in public office. She’s never held one. By her own account, she’s been a Democrat for just eight years.
And yet the national Democratic Party, which heavily recruited military veterans as it flipped the U.S. House in 2018, tapped her to run that year in a rock-ribbed Republican congressional district in Central Texas.
Though Hegar narrowly lost, a viral video about her war record and advocacy for women in the armed services gave her a national following.
Perhaps because of her audacity, a trait she highlights in every ad and campaign appearance, Hegar saw in defeat the beginning of something big. Now, days before the election, she and her supporters — both in Texas and in Washington — have at least matched the financial firepower of Republicans as she seeks to oust three-term U.S. Sen. John Cornyn.
Whether Hegar can pull off the upset depends a lot on how other Democrats above and below her perform on the Nov. 3 ballot and whether it’s a record turnout — in the right places.
But Hegar’s prospects also hinge on how successful she is at attracting Texans in the suburbs and elsewhere who haven’t been voting Democratic, while holding support from traditional Democratic voting blocs — Blacks, Hispanics, union members, white liberals. At least some loyalist Democrats have been wary, including her runoff opponent, state Sen. Royce West of Dallas.
Also, though outside groups supporting Hegar have now exceeded Republican groups’ generosity to Cornyn, she remains on a much tighter budget than was 2018 Democratic Senate hopeful Beto O’Rourke. Hegar’s raised only about one-fourth of the $80 million avalanche of cash that slid to him.
Her closing messages try to contrast her spunk as a Round Rock mother of two young boys, who rides a Harley Davidson, with a meekness she ascribes to Cornyn.
In one attack ad she spent nearly $1 million to run this week, a fast-forwarded news video shows Cornyn high-stepping to catch up with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as the Republican leaders retreat from a gaggle with reporters outside the White House.
As Texans lose jobs and get sick from the novel coronavirus, Hegar’s commercial says, there’s “no action, no leadership” from Cornyn. “But when his party bosses call, he jumps to rush through a Supreme Court nominee,” it says, referring to Amy Coney Barrett.
In the past three weeks, Hegar also has spent at least $3 million on two TV ads that link Cornyn to President Donald Trump’s early decisions on COVID-19, which are unpopular, polls show.
“I’ll listen to the experts and fight for quality, affordable health care for every Texan,” she says in one.
In the other, she says, “My mission isn’t over while Texas families are still in danger.”
The ad shows her sitting beside a simulated backdrop — a valley floor in Afghanistan on which an Air Force helicopter idles. It’s a reminder of her calling card, the valor she showed as a combat search and rescue chopper pilot who sustained back and shrapnel injuries when Taliban fighters shot her aircraft down in 2009. Hegar returned fire, from the skids of an Army rescue helicopter. She was awarded the Purple Heart.
Where Hegar stands
Cornyn has responded to her attack ads, accusing Hegar of wanting to defund police and go to a single-payer health care system. He’s called her “too liberal for Texas,” the darling of liberal donors on both coasts. Hegar has dismissed Cornyn’s accusations as false.
As a Senate candidate, she offers a lunch bucket medley of messages. She proposes squelching COVID-19 with more testing and additional personal protective equipment for front-line health care workers. She wants “another round of stimulus relief” from the economic downturn caused by the virus. She’d add a “public option” to Obamacare, but let people keep employer-sponsored and private individual-market plans. The federal government should lead to help reduce maternal mortality, promote new renewable-energy jobs and protect workers’ ability to form unions, she has said. She opposes liberals’ plans to cancel all student loan debt and enact the Green New Deal.
On wedge issues, Hegar would enshrine in federal law a woman’s right to an abortion. She’d encourage governments to ban “conversion therapy,” which tries to change a person’s sexual orientation. She’d ban the sale of assault-style weapons and support a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants.
But even though Hegar voted for Sen. Elizabeth Warren for president in the March primary, she lacks the Massachusetts liberal’s penchant for issuing detailed policy prescriptions.
On her website, Hegar doesn’t specify how much financial assistance Congress should give individuals and small businesses as the pandemic continues, nor what to do to lower housing costs or make taxes fairer.
Straddling suburbs, Democratic base
Experts said Hegar’s doing a dance, trying to add newcomers in the suburbs — and newly Democratic-leaning suburbanites — to her column while offering the party’s longtime supporters salty attacks on Cornyn, whom she accuses of Washington swampiness and surrendering to Trump.
“She’s been very vague because she’s trying to win over crossover voters while at the same time not alienating progressives,” said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones.
Hegar’s wooing moderates “more through her persona, and her personal qualities as a veteran, as a mother, as a motorcycle rider, as a gun owner, rather than any explicit policy proposals,” Jones said. “She’s probably not satisfying either side.”
Ira Bershad, president of the Frisco Democratic Club, though, said Hegar connects.
“Her appeal is high across the Democratic base, and specifically with women who see her not only as a patriot — being a military person — but also as a mom,” he said.
Hegar also resonates with independents “who are fed up with not only Trump but all of his … enablers, which include Senator Cornyn,” Bershad said. “They see her as tough, and tough translates to fighter. And there’s a lot of stuff to fight for.”
Hegar has work to do, though: She is still introducing herself to many Texans.
Even her “contrast” ads, which speak of Cornyn as feckless and a “politician,” are tightly compressed mini-biographies. They show her on her Harley, with her family. The tattoo on her shrapnel-scarred right arm. More than halfway through early voting, Hegar still was running “bio” commercials.
‘Bring him down’
One question that’s hovered over Hegar has been whether she could get the money to mount an effective statewide race. Counting independent expenditures, she has.
Between July 15, the day after she secured the Democratic nomination in a pandemic-delayed runoff primary, and Thursday, Hegar and groups supporting her spent $16.9 million on ads, compared with $15.9 million shelled out by Cornyn and his GOP allies, according to data collected by tracking firm Advertising Analytics. It was the first time the TV ad-buying advantage tipped her way.
The surge in pro-Hegar ads coincided with the disclosure this week that Silicon Valley billionaires are using the Future Forward super PAC, with four other Democratic groups assisting, to disgorge $28 million for TV ads to help Hegar.
Rice’s Jones, though, is skeptical that a late-hour deluge of money will shove Hegar past Cornyn.
Silicon Valley billionaires bankroll $28M deluge to help Hegar oust Cornyn in Texas Senate contest
“It’s coming at a time when about half of Texans have already voted,” he said. “It’s not clear that it’s going to be as effective as it might have been had she received that money back in July.”
With Cornyn less polarizing than some Republicans, Hegar “needed to bring him down,” Jones said. “She’s competing in a pink state. He’s not competing in a light-blue state.”
Still, Hegar has the advantages of higher turnout in a presidential year, which tends to help Democrats, and a top-to-bottom effort by her party in 2020.
Lydia Camarillo, president of the San Antonio-based Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, said Hegar will receive help from hard-campaigning, well-funded U.S. and Texas House candidates who are below her on the ballot.
“That helps to generate progressive voters,” she noted.
Ballot and party-unity hurdles
Complicating matters considerably, however, the 2017 Legislature prohibited straight ticket voting by party. The ban starts with next month’s general election.
Camarillo questioned whether regular voters used to the convenience “will have the patience to vote for every single space, every single candidate election.”
For Democratic activists in the Latino and Black communities, there’s also what Rice’s Jones calls “an elite issue” — the “extremely divisive primary” Hegar had with 11 other Democrats.
Last winter, she traded sharp elbows with Austin labor organizer Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, who finished third in March’s initial voting.
Over the spring and summer’s runoff campaign, Hegar swapped even harsher insults with West. He questioned her Democratic credentials. She questioned whether he used elective office improperly for personal gain, which he denied. Hegar won the runoff, but only by about 43,000 votes out of nearly 1 million cast.
Today, Hegar and Tzintzún Ramirez are on better terms. Earlier this month, Tzintzún Ramirez was among 35 Latino leaders who endorsed Hegar. On Wednesday, they appeared together on an online forum sponsored by LUPE, a left-leaning group in the Rio Grande Valley.
West, however, has not specifically retracted an Oct. 9 statement that he would not vote for Hegar in next month’s election. Cornyn has seized on the fissure, though a TV ad he aired was mostly for show. He didn’t put many dollars behind it, according to Advertising Analytics.
“It’s something that elites think about and most voters don’t,” Jones said of the Hegar-West spat. “But in an election where those elites, as well as people who follow their lead, could account for 1% or 2% of the vote … if she loses that, that’s 1% or 2% further away she is from Cornyn.”
Earlier this month, Hegar disclosed more of her personal voting history. She told the Houston Chronicle editorial board that she voted for the late GOP Arizona Sen. John McCain for president in 2008. Hegar acknowledged later she voted for Republican Mitt Romney over then-President Barack Obama in 2012.
Obama, who 12 days earlier endorsed Hegar, went on to tape a radio ad pitching her to Black Texans.
Hegar’s political ‘turning point’
Hegar, 44, grew up in conservative Williamson County before spending a dozen years in uniform. She cast the vote for Romney as “she was ending her military career,” said Hegar spokeswoman Amanda Sherman.
The same month, November 2012, Hegar became the lead plaintiff in a suit against then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta by the American Civil Liberties Union. It challenged a rule that excluded women from ground combat, even though they were allowed in air battles. The ban, which the Pentagon lifted two months later, had barred women’s advancement to senior roles in the military.
In a written statement, Hegar called her 2012 vote “a turning point” for her politically.
“Having just left the military and partnering with a coalition of female combat veterans that successfully opened up hundreds of thousands of jobs for women in the military, I realized the values I had always held were, in fact, more in line with Democratic priorities,” she explained.
Hegar’s since been a Democrat — with one hiccup. In her 2018 race against Round Rock GOP U.S. Rep. John Carter, reports surfaced that she voted in the 2016 Republican presidential primary. Hegar said she voted for Carly Fiorina as a protest vote against Trump. That fall, she voted for Hillary Clinton, she has said.
If elected, Hegar has said she won’t be a “go along, get along” lawmaker of the sort she accuses Cornyn of being. More like the less predictable McCain, known for bucking his party, she said. Cornyn, though, has cast her as likely to be a loyalist to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, who urged her to run this year.
According to Advertising Analytics, PACs associated with Schumer provided 43% of the $33 million of ads Hegar and Democrats supporting her have bought this cycle.
While the big outside expenditures helped separate her from the 11 other Democrats running for Senate this year, it came at a cost, said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston. In the primary, he supported West, a 27-year state senator.
“As a Black person, that would be the biggest slight you could ever give me, that my party said I wasn’t worth endorsing and endorsed against me in the primary,” recounted Coleman, an African American, noting half the Democratic field were Blacks or Latinos. “It may not be anger at MJ, but it sure is at the circumstance.”
Recently, Hegar launched what she called a “seven-figure” ad blitz in the Black community, which included the Obama endorsement.
Presidential year’s ‘free ride’
If Hegar has struggled with African Americans, she also had to forge alliances with rising Hispanic stars in the party, such as El Paso freshman U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, to consolidate Latino support for the runoff and general elections.
Camarillo, head of the nonprofit that registers Hispanic voters, though, warns, “I am not seeing enough money being spent in the Latino community.”
Rice’s Jones, however, said unlike O’Rourke, who was at the top of the ticket last time and had to fire up Blacks and Hispanics, Hegar “can free ride on Biden, the congressional campaigns and state House races.”
Of traditional constituencies, Hegar may have clicked best with organized labor.
“She connected with a bunch of our folks who have military backgrounds, and she wore a union mask to the debate with Cornyn,” said Texas AFL-CIO president Rick Levy, speaking of a black Teamster Local 988 face covering Hegar donned. “That was pretty cool.”
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