Texas Is Still A Red State, But This War Hero Is Part Of The Blue Tide Hoping To Turn It

It's a warm, sunny day when I pull up to the offices of MJ for Texas; the official campaign headquarters for Mary Jane Hegar is tucked away in the second floor of her home in Round Rock, a laid-back suburban town north of Austin. After stowing Hegar’s barking dog in another room, her campaign manager opens the door and leads me upstairs, where the Congressional District 31 candidate is just wrapping up a fundraising phone call. She’s dressed in jeans and a blouse with cutouts that show a hint of the tattoos that cover her arms; her brown curls frame her face as she waves hello and gestures to an office chair. There is an air of confidence about her that is not altogether surprising given her career as a war-zone rescue pilot, but also a hint of fatigue that likely comes from the new baby, who is her second child, asleep down the hall.

Hegar is a mess of contradictions, which is part of what makes her an appealing candidate for so many locals. She’s a lifelong Republican voter and Independent thinker turned Democrat. She’s a native Texan who has lived all over the world, thanks to her time in the Air Force (which, for the record, earned her a Purple Heart). She was also one of the plaintiffs in the ACLU’s lawsuit against the Department of Defense, which fought against the exclusion of women in combat — an issue she considers not only one of gender discrimination but of military effectiveness. She’s a mom, a wife, and an in-demand public speaker. Until recently, she was a career woman on the junior executive track at Dell, but she quit her job to run for office full time.

There’s also a Hollywood connection: In 2016 Hegar published Shoot Like a Girl: One Woman’s Dramatic Fight in Afghanistan and on the Home Front, a best-selling memoir about her multiple tours as a helicopter pilot that detail when she was shot down in Afghanistan and defended her squadron from enemy fire. A film adaptation of the story is currently in production, with Angelina Jolie rumored to be attached to the project, which has been optioned by TriStar/Sony with Jason Hall (American Sniper) and Alice O'Neill (Billions) at work on the script.

I was attacked. I got death threats. I had people comb through my training records trying to find things to use against me. I think that gives me a huge advantage.
MJ Hegar

We sit down at her heavy, dark wood kitchen table to talk. Hegar tells me that she’s a truth-teller, while she adds some salsa to a breakfast burrito that she’s having for lunch — she was too busy to get around to it at breakfast. She drops a lot of f-bombs, which is not a surprise for anyone who has read her book. The sheen of the perfectly polished candidate is not her thing and she will frequently blurt out her opinions in the rawest terms, railing against things she doesn’t believe in and doing her best to convince you of things she does. It’s strangely refreshing — you rarely get the sense that she’s holding anything back. "I have a really bad memory,” Hegar explains while rummaging through her silverware drawer for a fork. “It’s one of my PTSD symptoms. So my short-term memory is not great which is fine, because I always tell the truth. So I never have to worry that I’m getting caught wondering, What did I say? I just always tell the truth."

Photo courtesy of MJ for Texas.
MJ Hegar aboard an Air Force helicopter while deployed.

Hegar’s team consists of three people: Hegar, her campaign manager Christian Walker, and her assistant, Berkeley Mashburn, a recent college graduate who left a gig with EMILY’s List to work on this campaign. They, along with a trio of unpaid interns from the University of Texas, make up her tight and thrifty staff. Keeping the overhead low is key while she solicits individual and PAC donations to prove to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) that she’s a viable candidate in which they should invest money and resources.

Hegar tells me that for a win, she needs 88% of the people in her district who turned out to vote for the Democrats in the 2016 election to show up for the midterms and place a vote for her. That’s a huge number for a midterm turnout, particularly in the state that had the worst voter turnout in the country for the 2014 midterms. But, Hegar is optimistic: "We absolutely have dissatisfaction with the status quo on both sides of the aisle.”

As for the latter part of that equation, there are good reasons for her to feel confident. Beto O’Rourke, who is running against Ted Cruz for his Senate seat, bested Cruz in fundraising last quarter while accepting only individual contributions and eschewing pollsters and big data. The Austin American-Statesman reports that at least a dozen Democratic candidates running in the midterms have raised over $100,000 in this election cycle, which is remarkable for a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat since 1994 (Hegar clocked in at $93,000). Outraged liberals in Texas are more invested in this election than I’ve seen them get since the beloved Ann Richards ran against George W. Bush in 1994.

That doesn’t mean Texas is turning Democratic — as Hegar points out to me, a lot of Texans hate to pin themselves to one party or ideology — but it does mean DCCC spending in 2018 and 2020 could yield a lot of results on the state and national level if they convince voters to turn out. But there are tiny pockets of hope: Trump only won the state by 52% of the vote, making a state that has historically been solid red into a definitive pink in the 2016 election. 40% of Texas voters were Asian, Latinx, and Black and voted against Trump in sweeping numbers. Based on self-reported party affiliations, Gallup now considers Texas not Republican, but competitive — meaning “a difference between Republicans and Democrats of five percentage points or less.”

“A lot of people would think by looking at the numbers that we don’t have the votes here,” Hegar says. “It’s not true. It’s difficult to get people to vote that don’t vote. And it’s difficult to get people to vote Democrat who don’t vote Democrat." Hegar plans on getting both groups of people.

Photos courtesy of MJ for Texas.
Hegar grew up in Texas.

I see her plan in action that afternoon as we canvas door to door for signatures. We’re using voter data to target the homes of previous Democrat voters over age 55, who are most likely to sign and be home on a weekday afternoon. As Hegar is scrutinizing a house whose owner appears to be backing out of their driveway, she spies a man, with daughter in tow, parking his truck across the street. Pausing for a beat, she tells her campaign manager, “I know this goes against your advice, but I am going to get that guy.”

Hegar hops out of our vehicle before anyone can say a word, strides across the street, and introduces herself to the man as one of his neighbors. She tells him she’s running for Congress. He looks unimpressed until she gets to the highlights of her resume, starting by telling him she’s a veteran who served after 9/11. At this his face opens up and he immediately thanks her for her service. Hegar shrugs it off and tells him about being shot down in Afghanistan and being awarded a Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor — she doesn’t mention that she is only one of seven women to win the latter, because it would be ostentatious. When she asks him to sign her petition, he says yes. He never tells us anything about his affiliation, but he seems to want to know more of her story.

I watch this play out in a few more doorways, including a few instances where people give her donations. Hegar is good at telling her story; getting on a bigger stage after the March primaries in Texas will bring a higher level of scrutiny, but also an opportunity to lean into her strengths. Meanwhile, her lawsuit against the DOD helped her build up the armor needed to bypass any setbacks. “It was a very eye-opening experience of how things are done in D.C. It was disturbing,” Hegar says. “I was attacked. I got death threats. I had people comb through my training records trying to find things to use against me. I think that gives me a huge advantage, because I’m not scared of the things that most people should be afraid of if they run for office. I’ve already been through the worst of it.”

That evening, I accompany Hegar and her team, plus a group of interns who have just started at work on the campaign, to a private event at a supporter’s home. When they call Austin “hill country,” this luxury home overlooking other tasteful, uniform luxury homes is what they mean. The co-hosts for the event are friends Hegar met through a training program at Leadership Austin, which works through the city’s Chamber of Commerce to teach leadership courses to people with an interest in civic engagement. Only one attendee, Mike, seems to have a less than liberal philosophy on life, but he’s an old friend who met Hegar at a series of Toastmaster events. He tells me that though they disagree on some issues, he likes that she is “candid and doesn’t just go for softballs.”

After she gives an abbreviated version of her stump speech, Hegar opens the room up for questions. She urges everyone to ask anything they want, that they “won’t offend her” and she means it, because as much as I’ve seen her be brutally honest in the course of one day, she clearly loves the dialog when people are brutally honest to her in return. It echoes what Hegar told me earlier in the day when she told a story about registering voters at a wine festival. She was wearing a button that identified her as a Democrat, and found that some people would tell her she didn’t want to register them, because they are Republicans. “I’d say, ‘We are a low voter turnout state, we’re a low voter turnout district, and I want to register you. But are you really a Republican? Because you said it kind of quietly like you didn’t want anyone to hear you. How do you feel about that? How do you feel about the term Republican? And I’ll bet you we agree on a lot more than you think.’”

That comment was a theme in our conversations all day; Hegar managed to explain something about Texans to me that I've been trying to figure out since I moved back: They do not like labels. Texans like to joke that this state is its own country, but it is also truly the way a lot of Texans think. If they had to pick, they'd choose Texas over America most of the time. They imagine themselves to be independent, not beholden to one party or the other. Governor Greg Abbott has been using language like "the liberal wave" (his take on the "rising blue tide" Dems talk about, I suppose) in an email to his base to rally early voter turn out in the 2018 primary where Democrats have turned out in numbers Abbott thinks "should shock every Conservative to their core."

Hegar, along with the rest of the rising tide, face a challenge after the primary is over. That's when they have to begin playing to both sides of the aisle by keeping the lines of communication open to the right, to keep bringing over those people who don't typically vote Democrat, and pass their party's litmus test.

One major issue in the state is sure to be guns. Concealed carry was legalized the year I moved back and it dictates every move I make, quite literally as I don't go into establishments that allow it. Not only am I morally opposed, but I refuse to be killed while I'm shopping for tomatoes because someone has a itchy trigger finger in Krogers.

Hegar supports the Second Amendment, but tells me she's against the NRA's argument that access to guns has to be protected at all costs when we originally speak. I reached out to her campaign manager again after the Parkland, FL shooting to ask if she wanted to refine her position in light of current events. Her position remains much the same: She says gun violence is the "greatest threat" to the Second Amendment and that she is "passionately committed" to legislating away the gun violence epidemic. It's a vague stance that looks to toe the line between competing allegiances.

Gun control isn't an issue that is going away in the 2018 election cycle. Before this is over, Dems will want to know where she stands on everything from public access to semi-automatic weapons to raising the age limit on gun purchases to arming teachers. Answering them may make it more difficult for her to speak to on-the-fence Republican voters.

When the dust of the primaries clear is when we'll see how blue Texas and it's Democratic candidates actually are.

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