On the night Doug Jones defeated Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate race, I attended a fundraiser in Belton, Texas, for “MJ” Hegar, who is running in the Democratic primary for the right to challenge Republican John Carter, the current U.S. representative for District 31.
Hegar faces an uphill battle. District 31 is a traditionally conservative district in a conservative state. Republicans often run unopposed in the district, and Carter has been re-elected seven times since he first won the seat in 2002, by margins as large as 83 percent to 17. More on Hegar and Carter later.
Democrats are taking encouragement from Alabama, as well as from surprisingly strong election results in Virginia and elsewhere.
Nevertheless, some commentators suggest that Democrats shouldn’t get their hopes up for 2018.
Last week, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens reminded Democrats that in politics, bad numbers - Trump’s low approval rating, for example - are often outranked by good numbers: a 3.3 percent quarterly growth rate, a 4.1 percent unemployment rate and a 24 percent increase in the Dow Jones industrial average since Jan. 20.
In other words, voters will overlook a lot as long as the economy is churning along steadily, regardless of who’s in power.
Still, things are changing rapidly in our country. Who could have imagined that our nation would be so willing to dismantle memorials to the Confederacy and rename schools and parks that honor the heroes of the Old South? Or that after decades - centuries, really - of festering tolerance, women would rise up and say enough with the harassment and assault?
So might Democrats hope that in November of 2018 a number of issues achieve critical mass at just the right moment?
For example, based on the unpopular Republican tax bill or the abolishment of net neutrality or the persistent undermining of health care for people of limited means, voters may realize that Republican governance is mostly about benefits for corporations and the already wealthy.
Or, between the wildfires and rising sea levels, voters may decide that climate change is a real threat and no longer tolerate an administration and party that refuse to act.
In any case, Democrats should be ready with alternatives, as well as with a message of their own. Which brings us back to Hegar, Carter and District 31, where the particular sheds light on the general:
John Carter, the Republican incumbent, is a dependable pro-Trump, pro-business, pro-gun, party-line voter. He says that global warming is “simply a chicken-little scheme.” No one would be surprised if he were re-elected in a putative Republican district like 31. And no one should expect anything to change in a good way with another two years of Republican majority in the House.
“MJ” Hegar is a former rescue helicopter pilot who was shot down in Afghanistan. Though wounded, she and a small party fought off an attack by 150 Taliban and evacuated their wounded patients. (By the way, equality for women will have reached the Promised Land when the fact that Hegar is a woman is no longer notable.)
After Afghanistan, Hegar worked with the Pentagon and the ACLU to sue the Department of Defense for the right of women to serve in ground combat. They won.
Of course, being a war hero doesn’t immediately translate into good politics or good governance. But Hegar has reasonable, well-articulated positions on issues that are being ignored or mismanaged by Republicans. Her positions on the health and well-being of ordinary citizens are supported by her role as a woman and a mother. She has credibility on military spending and gun policy. And she’s willing to talk candidly about fair taxation and climate change.
Of course, not every red district can produce a candidate of this quality, but if they wish to win in 2018, Democrats should try. The stars may align for them next November, and voters may be galvanized by the prospect of better governance at the same time that the inept chaos of the current administration becomes so obvious that it can no longer be tolerated.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.