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SALADO – While checking out a table set up for U.S. Rep. John Carter’s re-election campaign at a recent Salado Republican Women’s Club meeting, Sherril Gardipee noticed something different.
“It’s a lot more organized than it has been in the past,” she said to herself.
There is a reason for that, and her name is MJ Hegar. By force of her personal story and fundraising prowess, Hegar, a military veteran, has put this traditionally Republican stronghold of a House district on the midterm map. Both at the Salado event and in recent meetings with colleagues, Carter, a Round Rock Republican, has acknowledged that he is in the fight of his political life.
Since he was first elected in 2002, Carter has cruised to re-election. The district's voting history would normally suggest a similar outcome this year. But Democrats are seeing momentum in races across Texas and the country and hoping Hegar might turn out to be the right Democrat at the right time to flip the seat.
The 31st Congressional District extends across two counties — all of suburban Williamson County and most of Bell County, a largely rural area that takes in cities along Interstate 35, stretches of farming communities and the Fort Hood military base. The population centers are in Temple, Killeen, and Austin's suburbs.
Carter's recent speech here in Salado suggests his strategy will be similar to the one he's used in past general elections against far-less-formidable opponents: turning out the district's reliably Republican base. In touting his support for a border wall, Carter playfully joked about building a second wall, a political one between Williamson County and its more liberal neighbor, Travis County.
“It’s time to build that wall," Carter said. "If you don’t want people from Austin, liberals like the folks who most of us moved up here to get away from, if you don’t want them running ... you gotta wake up with this election."
Gardipee is a longtime backer of Carter and was only vaguely aware he had any sort of viable competition this year. Even so, she was perplexed that a Democrat could pick up traction in CD-31.
“Everywhere I look, I see good things happening,” she said. “The Democrats didn’t do this. Trump and the Republicans have done it."
Whether Carter is really in political trouble is a debatable point in Texas GOP circles.
Hegar blew Carter out of the water in fundraising over the summer largely on the strength of a biographical viral video. The 3-minute clip highlighted her military service, including being shot down by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2009, as well as her successful bid to change the military’s policy on women in combat. It quickly gained more than 2 million views on YouTube and turbocharged Hegar's fundraising. Last month, she reported raising $1.1 million in the second quarter, four times Carter's sum over the same period. She also had a $300,000 cash-on-hand advantage.
The disparity was on Carter's mind when speaking to the Salado Republicans.
“My opponent raised a million dollars in ten days on a video, and none of that money came from our district," he said. "We’ve been able to track, and most of it didn’t come from Texas. In fact, most of it came from California, New York, Massachusetts. Her campaign is being run by New York.”
To be sure, Carter has accepted out-of-state donations, but at a much lower ratio than Hegar, per the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics.
Hegar's camp fired back, pointing to another CRP metric showing that Carter's fundraising is heavily from the business world.
“While John Carter is funded by powerful corporations and special interests, MJ is refusing corporate PAC money and is instead running a Texas-focused, people-powered campaign.” campaign spokesman Christian Walker said.
Amid all of this money, Texas Republican operatives interviewed for this story expressed fear that Hegar poses an existential threat to Carter's political career and that he's not adequately prepared organizationally or financially. Hegar is readying a television onslaught in the district for sometime after Labor Day.
"This week, we wrapped up our first set of TV ads — I can't wait to share them with you," Hegar wrote in a fundraising email to supporters sent Thursday. "We know that when voters across TX-31 hear my background, polling shows that we win this race."
There are a few reasons some in GOP circles fear a perfect storm is brewing against Carter. Perhaps the one quietly discussed the most is that the mechanics, fundraising and tactics of modern campaigning have changed dramatically since his first successful run more than 15 years ago and he hasn't kept up. Also, Democrat Beto O'Rourke's spirited bid against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz is beginning to spook Republicans about how a potential surge in Democratic turnout might impact down-ballot races just like Carter's.
The shifting demographics of this district — particularly in suburban Williamson County — are also raising some alarm bells. While still considered a Republican district, it was redder when Republican officials drew its lines seven years ago. If a Democratic midterm wave sweeping across the country did reach Central Texas, could the district possibly flip?
Sources close to Carter counter he has done the on-the-ground constituent work for years to inoculate himself from a serious threat, and he and his team are quick to tout a recent piece of legislation he moved through Congress to assist veterans with organ donations. But Hegar has noted that Carter hasn't held an in-person town hall in years.
In Washington, GOP operatives focused on the national map and keeping the House in Republican hands view Hegar's bid as a long-shot. Two other Democratic campaigns in Texas – Collin Allred's bid against U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, and Lizzie Panill Fletcher's campaign against U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston – are more immediate concerns.
But national strategists say they are closely monitoring CD-31 to see if Hegar’s advertising begins to move polling numbers.
For now, no outside groups have made television advertising reservations in this district, according to two Democratic sources who track media buying information. But both sources cautioned they expected Republican groups to play here later in the fall.
“The liberals are trying to buy a Congressional district,” Carter said, alluding to Hegar’s fundraising. “And not only the congressional district — they will ultimately be trying to buy every single solitary elected official’s position in both of our counties.”
The Hegar camp and national Democrats remain confident in her chances — if she can keep up the fundraising.
“MJ is a reflection of her district,” Walker said of the state of the race. “She’s a good fit in a district that has more veterans than 97 percent of congressional districts around the country. MJ is a perfect fit for the community she’s grown up in.”
But Hegar and her money are already causing ripples nationally.
Carter is a senior member of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee. In political terms, this means that the House GOP campaign arm relies on him to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars every cycle to help other candidates.
But in his most recent campaign finance report, Carter shifted from a donor member — one who sends money to vulnerable members — to a recipient member. About a dozen U.S. House Republicans, including U.S. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, donated money from their campaigns to Carter’s re-election effort.
Many of these donations were made on June 29 – at the peak of the media frenzy surrounding Hegar’s viral video.
Texas Republicans in Congress are also rallying around him. U.S. Reps. Brian Babin of Woodville, Jodey Arrington of Lubbock, Kevin Brady of the Woodlands and Mike Conaway of Midland were among the members who gave to Carter’s campaign.
Babin also hosted Carter for a Houston fundraising lunch on Tuesday.
And so Carter looks to the fall for what could be the fight of his life. Despite the overhanging concerns of members of his own party that privately question whether he's ready, he insisted to his Salado supporters that he is.
“We are a very professional organization,” he said. “We do polls. We do projections, and we’re going to do what it takes to win.”