Can a viral video flip a Texas Congressional district? MJ Hegar aims to find out

Mary Jennings (MJ) Hegar stands with a helicopter door featured in her campaign ad that has drawn more than 1 million views online.  Hegar is the 2018 Democratic nominee challenging U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock.
Mary Jennings (MJ) Hegar stands with a helicopter door featured in her campaign ad that has drawn more than 1 million views online. Hegar is the 2018 Democratic nominee challenging U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock.
Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

WASHINGTON – Overnight last week, a sleeper Texas Democratic congressional candidate shot from relative obscurity to political celebrity.

Veteran M.J. Hegar saw her long shot Congressional bid gain an astonishing amount of credibility in mere hours after her campaign released a biographical campiagn video that, as of press time, had drawn nearly two million views on YouTube.

But she is running against U.S. Rep. John Carter, a Round Rock Republican, in a deeply conservative Texas district. In the days after the video blew up on social media, many operatives from both parties were left wondering if its success can help Hegar win a race that, on paper at least, looks incredibly difficult for a Democrat to win.

“I think it already has impacted the campaign,” emailed Charlie Kelly, the executive director of House Majority PAC, a super PAC tied to House Democratic leadership. “That’s partly because, without question, it’s an amazing ad that’s certainly given MJ Hegar a whole new level of media attention and likely been a boost to her fundraising.”

“The splash that ad has made is a big deal, but what’s really durable is Hegar’s underlying story and level of quality as a candidate. Particularly in a district like that – that matters.”

The ad – titled “Doors” – delves into much of Hegar’s background that she wrote about in her memoir published last year, “Shoot Like a Girl: One Woman’s Dramatic Fight in Afghanistan and on the Home Front.” It begins with the medevac helicopter door she keeps in her home after it was shot down by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2009 – and moves to her successful bid to change the military’s policy on women in combat. It continues to the lack of attention she claims she has recevied as a constitutent of Carter’s. It was not an ad meant for television – it is over three minutes in length. At a base level, it is propaganda set to a score that sounds like a Rolling Stones song.

But it was everywhere within hours of its release last week.

Watch more video.

While most Democrats delighted in the video, a few party operatives winced. The high quality was so striking that private speculation swirled in some circles over whether its production costs would end up offsetting what Hegar might raise off of it. Some also wondered how many of those two million sets of eyeballs will actually have a chance to vote for her?

The Hegar camp said the point of the video was not financial, and they see evidence of it generating local excitement.

“The purpose of the video was to get MJ’s story out there and to communicate to folks about who she is and why she’s running,” said campaign spokesman Christian Walker.

On the other side of the aisle, some Texas Republican sources watched – and even re-watched – the video with concern.

Carter’s campaign pushed back on those worries, arguing that the video raised the congressman’s profile as well. Since it was released, Carter spokesman Todd Olsen told the Tribune that they’ve seen an uptick in their own campaign social media as well as people volunteering for his campaign.

“I suspect every time it gets talked about on CNN and MSNBC, that helps MJ Hegar raise money, and I think it also will help Judge Carter raise money,” Olsen said. “It will be a little bit of both.”

The district includes much of the northern Austin suburbs and parts of Fort Hood and surrounding rural communities along Interstate 35. The military base makes the veteran vote key for both campaigns.

Olsen pointed to recent legislation Carter helped move through Congress, which mandated the Veterans Administration cover the medical expenses of non-veterans who donate organs to veterans.

Hegar, as a veteran, indicated in an April interview with the Tribune that she would compete hard for that voting bloc.

“I think that this district…because it’s filled with so many veterans, it’s filled with people who are discerning, who aren’t going to vote as they’re told or as they always have,” she said.

Since she launced her campaign last summer, Hegar was on a quiet list of Democratic sleeper candidates – long shots running professional campaigns in heavily Republican districts that could become competitive in the event of a major Democratic wave this fall. Already, she managed to outraise Carter in the first quarter of this year – a major warning sign for any incumbent up for re-election.

But Carter is a stalwart of the delegation who serves on the powerful U.S. House Appropriations Committee, which can also be a fundraising magnet when a member needs it. First elected in 2002, he has never had a serious general election campaign. He’s frequently referred to as “Judge” – a throwback to his previous position as a Williamson County district court judge – than as a congressman.

Carter is openly telling other Republicans that he has a real race on his hands with Hegar, according to multiple delegation sources.

But some Texas Republicans worry he got the message too late and has not built up an infrastructure quickly enough to prepare for the fall.

His campaign disagrees.

“That’s completely untrue,” Olsen said. “Judge has been walking blocks, has been talking with voters, has been holding meetings, all the things that a candidate like Judge would do, and he always assumes he’s going to have a tough race. That’s just his personality and you see that in how he works.”

If Hegar did win, her victory would likely be part of a massive wave that goes well beyond the 23 seats Democrats need to take control of the U.S. House. There are well over 100 Republican-held seats – seven alone within Texas – that are more favorable to a Democrats than Carter’s 31st Congressional district, based on recent election results, according to The Cook Political Report.

At the same time, Cook recently moved the district’s rating in Democrats’ favor from “Safe Republican” to “Likely Republican,” a likely nod to the professionalism of Hegar’s campaign.

Should Hegar go into the fall with more money than Carter, the race could potentially factor into the calculus of national Republicans tasked with holding the House majority.

The Democratic campaign arm raised nearly twice as much as its Republican counterparts in May – a sum that has nearly erased the cash-on-hand advantage Republicans have held for most of this cycle.

If this situation continues, there could be little financial bandwidth to save what should be a normally safe Republican seat like Carter’s. To protect him, Republicans could end up pulling ad money – and giving up on – tighter races elsewhere in the country.

Even so, that is all months away; and at this point, still a hypothetical.

For the Hegar campaign, the ad has already accomplished what they intended it to do: get her name out in the public sphere.

“I think it served its purpose,” Walker, her spokesman said. “Mission accomplished on that end, but we’ve got a lot of work to do.”



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