AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Texas’ 31st Congressional District, north of Austin, has never elected a Democrat since it was created in 2002, and the decorated Air Force veteran seeking to oust eight-term Republican Congressman John Carter, who defended his seat by a 22 percentage point margin in 2016, has a tough fight on her hands.
The 31st Congressional District spans more than 50 miles from North Austin to Fort Hood, the country’s largest active-duty armored military post. The district is home to tens of thousands of veterans, including Democratic candidate M.J. Hegar, a Purple Heart recipient who was also awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor for her service as an Air Force search and rescue pilot.
Several hundred Fort Hood soldiers are among the more than 5,200 troops the Pentagon is sending to the border, at the order of President Trump, to meet a migrant caravan that is nearly 1,000 miles and weeks away from the U.S. border.
“It is such a transparent political move which is so offensive to me as a veteran,” Hegar told Courthouse News Tuesday.
“When you deploy the military two months before they’re needed, and way more people than they need, as a political move, you’re disrupting people’s lives. You’re making family members miss birthdays. They’re going to miss Thanksgiving!”
Mary Ottilie Jennings Hegar, 42, who goes by M.J., wrote the 2017 book “Shoot Like a Girl,” about her three tours of duty in Afghanistan, during which she flew more than 100 missions. The Taliban shot down her helicopter in Kandahar Province during her third tour of duty in 2009, but she was rescued by another chopper. Because it was full, she was flown out on the skids, from which she returned fire to Taliban forces on the ground.
Hegar said in an interview this week that the troops already at the Mexican border say there is not much for them to. She called Trump’s sending more than twice as many troops to the border as are fighting ISIS in Syria “fear-mongering” a week before midterm elections. The real threat, Hegar said, is gang violence in the immigrants’ homelands.
“We need comprehensive immigration reform that prioritizes the security of our country, the security of our border, but we have to provide a humanitarian response to a humanitarian crisis,” Hegar said.
She said our country needs more leaders who have military experience. Military veterans “understand the sacrifice,” Hegar said. “You understand how terrifying it is. … We need more combat veterans in office, because we understand the things we’re fighting for, but we also understand the awesome price of deploying troops, not just to combat zones but around the world.”
Along with affordable healthcare and campaign finance reform, veterans’ issues are a key part of Hegar’s platform. She wants to ensure that active military members keep getting their paychecks during government shutdowns, help veterans make the transition to civilian life, and make sure they get better care and access to services.
Incumbent Republican Carter, 76, has represented the district since it was created. He too is stressing veterans’ in his campaign. A member of the Tea Party Caucus, Carter did not serve in the military, but is chairman of the House Appropriations Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee.
In a Wednesday email to Courthouse News, Carter said his most meaningful achievement in office was securing Purple Hearts for the victims of the 2009 shooting at Fort Hood.
“The Obama Administration turned their back on these victims,” Carter wrote. “I fought for years with the Administration to get the victims Purple Hearts and medical benefits so they could get the treatment they deserved, we finally won the fight.”
He said he considers it his “duty to ensure our veteran health care systems are 5-star facilities.”
“I took a big step towards that issue this year, when I passed the largest funding amount for the Department of Veterans Affairs in the agency’s history,” Carter said.
Before his 16 years in Congress, Carter spent 20 years as a state judge. His supporters see him as a man who knows how to get things done in Washington.
Sue De Villaz, president of the Georgetown Area Republican Women’s group in District 31, said she admires Hegar for her military service, but “that in itself is not a qualification for elected office.”
Villaz said Carter helped her address issues she had with her mother’s care in a nursing home when other elected officials wouldn’t, and sat down with her husband to discuss what the government should do about healthcare issues. She said Carter’s chairmanship of the committee proves “how hard he’s worked” and that he’s “respected by his peers.”
“You better know how to handle the House, you better know how to handle the Senate, and you better know the protocols,” Villaz said. “And I’m sorry to say, but that takes years.”
Hegar does have experience navigating the nation’s capital. She lobbied Congress and was the lead plaintiff in a 2012 lawsuit against the Department of Defense, challenging the Pentagon’s ground combat exclusion policy, which excluded women from certain positions and promotions, and kept women from receiving the same combat training as their male counterparts, even though hundreds of women have served in combat operations.
The suit was successful, though there have been some concerns that the Trump administration will reinstate the exclusion policy.
In a campaign ad titled “Doors,” Hegar describes the combat exclusion policy as a door that closed, barring her from her next military career choice after she was injured. Now, she says, her experience challenging the powers that be in Washington is one of the reasons why she is running for Congress.
“I don’t embark on something that I don’t think I’m going to be able to be effective at,” Hegar said. “I know I’ll be an effective congresswoman because I’ve already been in D.C., gathering bipartisan support for something that was impacting my community, that community being the military at the time.”
At a get out the vote rally Sunday in a North Austin park, flanked by other Democratic candidates, and stars of the CW television series “Supernatural,” Hegar partisanship should not be the issue, and that she has voted for Democrats and Republicans in the past.
“It’s about fighting for the values of our country, and the things that I put the uniform on in the first place,” Hegar said.
She said one of her goals is to increase civic engagement, and is excited by the high early voting turnout this year, which is breaking records in Williamson County, where more than 37 percent of registered voters had cast ballots by Tuesday.
“I do think that part of the reason we’re seeing turnout is because people in this district are very independent-minded and discerning,” Hegar said. “If they don’t like the message they’re hearing, they’re not going to go to the polls to vote against it, they just won’t be inspired to get to the polls.
“We’ve had low voter turnout because not a lot of people in this district buy what John Carter has been selling and now that they have a candidate that’s talking to them and speaking their language, talking about actually taking care of them … the things that actually hit them at home.”
Kim Gilby is chair of the Williamson County Democratic Party, which was able to hire election staff for the first time ever this year. She said Hegar’s campaign and its volunteers were also fired up by enthusiasm for Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, who, though trailing incumbent Ted Cruz, is giving him a run for his money. Gilby said that Hegar, like O’Rourke, is the “real deal” and that her authenticity and life experiences will help her be a “very good leader in D.C.”
“The bottom line is, she really cares about people,” Gilby said.
Hegar grew up in a household touched by domestic violence: She saw her father throw her mother through a glass door. Her mother moved her family to Texas to start a new life, and Hegar grew up in Round Rock. She joined the military after graduating from the University of Texas, and, after her time in the Air Force she worked in health care and as an executive coach and consultant. She’s married and has two children, drives motorcycles and will happily show off her tattoos.
“She’s got such a good story,” Hegar supporter Sandra Litwin said. “She’s for expanding health care, she wants to see that our veterans are treated well, she’s progressive socially. She’s a little more conservative fiscally, which is what I am.”
Rachel DiMasi and Kenneth Fiduk do not live in Hegar’s district but came to support her at the get out the vote rally. Fiduk said Hegar strikes him as “someone who understands what the normal citizen is dealing with on a daily basis.”
“We’re not even in her district, but we need change and she stands for it,” DiMasi said. “She shows that she can get up there and she can fight for what’s right. Texas needs to change. We’re not a red state, we’re a non-voting state. … We need to get her elected so she can get up there and speak up and represent us, because a lot of us don’t feel represented in this state. They’re not standing up for our ideals.”
Not surprisingly, Texas Republican Party Chairman James Dickey disagrees. He said that “Hegar’s values just don’t fit the district,” which went for Trump in 2016 by a margin of 12.5 points.
“That’s why she’s received more itemized donations from California than from Texas, and a ridiculous 83 percent last quarter were from outside Texas,” Dickey said in an email. “It’s clear she excites coastal liberals — not the voters of CD 31, and that’s why Congressman Carter will be re-elected. He shares values with the district and has a proven track record of results.”
Carter told Courthouse News that Hegar is “trying to buy this election with outside money from New York and California, and I’m out in the community working for it.”
“My opponent may outraise me, but she will not outwork me,” Carter said.
Hegar, whose campaign recently finished a fiscal quarter, said that most of her donations come from Texas.
“We have gotten $600,000 less from California than we’ve gotten from Texas,” Hegar said. “We have outraised Carter 58 to 1 in small donations.”
Most of Carter’s campaign donations have come from PACs and individual donations over $200, according to the Federal Election Commission.
“If they want to insinuate you’re going to vote as you’re told by your donors, that’s certainly more applicable when you’re taking corporate PAC money and you get the majority of your money from corporate PACs like my opponent does,” Hegar said.
Hegar bristles at the notion that she does not represent Texas values, and that “the only Texan values are the values of people” who agree with Republicans.
“I represent Texas values because I am tough, because I am honest, because I fight for the middle class and small business owners, because I’m fiscally responsible,” Hegar said.
The district is rated as “Likely Republican” by the Cook Political Report. In a Siena College-New York Times poll conducted at the beginning of October, Carter was about 15 points ahead of Hegar.
“People flock to TX-31 because of the great schools, low taxes, affordable cost of living, and economic opportunity,” Carter said. “All of those qualities that people are seeking are created because of conservative leadership.”
While some of Carter’s supporters are confident he’ll win in a “landslide,” Hegar’s supporters, like Fiduk, are looking for effects “far beyond this one result.”
“More people are voting in this midterm election than ever before,” DiMasi said. “People don’t normally care. We care this time. People are paying attention. We’re trying to make a change.”