Mary Jennings “MJ” Hegar, a 42-year-old mother and Republican turned “independent Democrat” running for Congress in Texas, is an Air Force veteran and retired Air National Guard helicopter pilot who didn’t let an abusive biological father, knee injuries, and sexual bias, harassment and assault stop her from doing three tours in Afghanistan that climaxed with a rescue mission gone awry in which she strapped herself to the skids of a chopper and fired at the Taliban. Her service earned her a Purple Heart. Back stateside, she successfully sued the Secretary of Defense (Hegar, et al. v. Panetta) to get the Pentagon to end the policy that officially barred women from combat, was named by Newsweek as one of 125 “Women of Impact” of 2012 and wrote a bestselling book called Shoot Like a Girl that came out last year and is now set to be turned into a movie with Angelina Jolie reportedly in talks to play the lead role.
“She’s a badass,” Democratic ad maker Cayce McCabe told me last week.
McCabe’s biggest concern heading into the shooting and editing of the 3½-minute biographical spot released last month was whether or not he could “do her story justice.”
He did. The ad immediately began to ricochet around the internet, Hegar’s fundraising and name recognition turbocharged by millions of YouTube views and Facebook shares. It earned her coverage in news outlets as varied as USA Today, Adweek and People. It got her on CNN and MSNBC. And it has made her a Democratic candidate to watch in Texas’ 31st Congressional District, which is composed of suburban and rural areas north of Austin, includes Fort Hood in Killeen and has voted for nobody but GOP Rep. “Judge” John Carter since it was created more than a decade and a half ago.
It also was the third Putnam Partners ad in the past two years that made a Democratic military veteran go viral. In 2016, it was Jason Kander, his blindfold and his AR-15. In 2017, it was Amy McGrath, the first female Marine to fly an F/A-18 fighter jet in combat, launching her upstart candidacy in Kentucky’s 6th District. This year, it’s Hegar.
“Doors” went viral, McCabe believes, because of Hegar (she’s “dynamic” and “electric”) and because of her story (“good enough to make a movie out of”) but also due to the moment in which it landed. “It’s not an easy time in this country, especially these past couple weeks seeing families ripped apart at the border,” he told me. “So I think a story of somebody overcoming the odds, and fighting, and a warrior—it’s kind of just what people needed.” “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda told his more than 2.4 million Twitter followers it was “the best political ad anyone’s ever seen.”
“We’re in a period when many voters aren’t looking for more of the same, so women and veterans and people who haven’t been in traditional positions of power represent change, and they represent change at a time when more of the same just won’t do,” Margolis said. “This is a political moment where I think a lot of voters are anxious to see something very different in Congress and people who don’t look like everyone else who’s currently there.”
Trippi sees these spots as sneak previews of sorts for 2020. “You’re going to have 16, 17, 18 Democrats running for president of the United States, all doing some kind of compelling long-form video,” he told me.
For the time being, though, in these House races in red states, viral ads have made Democrats who are veterans viable in a way they wouldn’t have been without them.
McCabe thinks it can propel Hegar to a win this fall.
“Absolutely,” he said. The ad cost more than $40,000 to make, a tab shared by her campaign and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Hegar didn’t have that much money to burn, but it proved to be more than worth it. “It’s helped her raise a ton of money. I mean, it’s over half a million as of right now. My guess is that it could very well be a million by the time this quarter report comes out.” Added McCabe: “We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars if not close to a million in $5, $10, $25 contributions, so these are not people who are maxed out and cannot give again.” By contrast, Carter, the GOP incumbent, had a little more than $350,000 in his coffers at the end of March.
See here for the background, and here for your original introduction to MJ Hegar. This story came out before Hegar announced her million-dollar haul in Q2, so you can see just how good an investment that video was. Hegar had raised $496K as of May 2, but since she had $458K of that as of March 31 it’s clear the video paid off for her in spades. It surely helps to have a good story to tell, but it just as surely helps to tell that story well. I figure Putnam Partners is getting a lot of calls from other candidates about now.