Democrat M.J. Hegar is running on her grit — as an Air Force combat veteran and as a mother — ahead of next week’s Texas primary runoffs.
“I’m not new to pressure,” Hegar said Thursday in a phone interview. “Being in ground combat with nine of us versus 150 enemy fighters? That pressure was different than this pressure.”
Hegar is part of a wave of female candidates emphasizing personal toughness in bids for the House this year. With the chaos and controversy of President Trump’s White House and a steady stream of misconduct allegations hitting male politicians, Democratic primary voters seem ready to welcome the surge of female outsiders as a would-be steadying force.
“I have older straight white men who tell me all the time, ‘We need to let women fix this,’ ” said Lorie Burch, a Democratic House candidate running in the Dallas suburbs.
A record number of women are running for Congress this year, but it’s unclear if the Year of the Woman Candidate will turn into a second Year of the Woman. That label was attached to 1992, when a record four women joined the U.S. Senate. But this year, many female candidates are running in competitive primaries or in districts that heavily favor the other party, so the surge may not increase the number of women in Congress overall. Women hold roughly 1 in 5 congressional seats; so far this year, their success rate in House primaries has been about 50 percent.
Democratic voters’ eagerness to elect female candidates comes as their party continues to reel from Hillary Clinton’s surprise presidential defeat in 2016. This year, about 40 female newcomers have won Democratic House primaries around the country. In Texas, where Democrats will settle 11 primary runoffs on Tuesday, women are running in all but one.
Like struggling companies that bring in female CEOs, Democratic voters may be seeking stability and effectiveness in female candidates.
“Research tells us that women sometimes benefit from a stereotypical advantage related to change,” said Kelly Dittmar, a Rutgers University professor who studies women in politics. “They’re seen as someone who is different, an outsider, anti-establishment.”
Primary results this week in Pennsylvania underscored women’s appeal in Democratic races. In a state with no women in its congressional delegation, Democratic voters chose female candidates in seven primaries on Tuesday. At least three are running in districts where the Democrat is expected to win in November, some having seized the opportunity after the state’s congressional map was redrawn.
“We’re going to change the face of this delegation,” said Madeleine Dean, who won a Democratic primary Tuesday in a solid-blue district in the Philadelphia suburbs.
Dean, a state legislator since 2013, said she started participating in legislative battles as soon as she reached Harrisburg, a quality she promised to take to Capitol Hill.
“What I hope people saw is somebody prepared to fight . . . who, in my experience going to Harrisburg, began putting up a fight immediately.”
In Texas, female Democratic newcomers won nine House primaries outright; in Nebraska, one woman beat out a former congressman in a primary in Omaha, while another won a chance to challenge Republican Sen. Deb Fischer.
In Idaho, former Democratic state legislator Paulette Jordan defeated two-time candidate A.J. Balukoff, a victory that puts her one step closer to becoming the country’s first female Native American governor.
Next week’s primaries will test the mettle of female candidates in Arkansas, Georgia and Kentucky, as well as Texas.
In Georgia, two female attorneys — Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans — are vying for the Democratic nomination for governor, while in Kentucky, retired Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath is campaigning for the House as a Democrat.
McGrath has emphasized her personal courage and grit throughout her campaign. In a video last year, she said she aspired to land jets on aircraft carriers as a child “because that’s the toughest flying we can do.”
Hegar served three tours in Afghanistan and was awarded a Purple Heart after Taliban fighters shot down a medevac helicopter she was piloting in 2009. She nearly won her primary in a district north of Austin in March and will face physician Christine Eady Mann next week.
Of course, many women seeking primary victories will not win in November. Most female candidates competing in Democratic runoffs next week are seeking to run in districts that heavily backed the president. Either Hegar or Mann will face Rep. John Carter (R) in a district that went for Trump by 13 points.
Women have also had trouble running and winning so far this year in races higher up the ballot. Of the states that have held primaries so far, only Nebraska will see women compete in its Senate election, while only Idaho and Oregon will have female candidates for governor.
In House races, Democratic female newcomers have far outstripped their GOP counterparts, who have run and won in only a small handful of primaries.
Republican Carmen Maria Montiel is seeking her party’s House nomination in the Houston area, where Clinton received 71 percent of the vote. She described herself as a survivor of domestic violence and said it taught her to “stand up and fight.”
“I know how it is being up and being down. I have learned how to stand up after a fall,” Montiel said.
Attorney Susan Wild beat five men in her House primary in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley this week. She said she stood out as a hard-nosed lawyer who has spent years of her career in court.
“I’m used to hard battle. I’m used to tough questions. I’m used to dealing with sometimes very unreasonable people. It’s not something that scares me,” she said.
Even Wild’s chief opponent spoke about the need for more women in office.
“Susan Wild is part of the wave. . . . I understand that. I get that. We need more female representation in the Congress and in the state legislature,” John Morganelli said in his concession speech.
Wild, who is running for the seat vacated by Republican Charlie Dent, will face an even tougher race in the general election. She faces Republican Marty Nothstein, a former Olympic medalist and chairman of the local board of commissioners.
When talking about how she dealt with the pressures of running for public office, Wild recalled her experience — with childbirth.
“Challenging, demanding, exhilarating, fun, horrible — all kinds of things mixed together,” Wild said. “You forget how hard it was as soon as you have the outcome.”
David Weigel contributed to this report.