Democrats Must Capitalize on the Virality of Female Veteran Candidates

MJ Hegar released the campaign ad “Doors” on June 20, 2018, announcing her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for the seat representing Texas’ 31st Congressional District. Ten months later, Hegar released the campaign ad “(Re)Introduction,” announcing her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for Texas Senate. In the 10 months between the two videos, Hegar lost her bid for Congress, and “Doors” accumulated over three million views on Youtube. Hegar’s video points to an emerging pattern among certain female veteran candidates seeking Democratic nominations across the nation: dynamic campaign ads that highlight their military experience go viral, yet the candidates still lose. MJ Hegar and Amy McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot who ran to represent Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District, ran campaigns that demonstrate this pattern. During the 2018 election cycle, 11 female veterans ran for Congress as Democrats. Such a historic number of women with military backgrounds seeking public office served to upset a social narrative about female candidates. This narrative argues that female candidates are not as “strong” or “tough” as men in the same position. The sheer act of running for office defies stereotypes concerning the “optimal” woman in that such individuals are ambitious and knowledgeable about matters concerning foreign policy. While many of the aforementioned female candidates were not successful in their attempts at public office, 173 veterans ran in the 2018 election cycle, demonstrating a seeming increased national interest in issues such as national security and defense.

In the past, the DNC has not offered these candidates adequate funding and support. Democrats must invest in liberal female veteran candidates during the 2020 cycle because the combination of their understanding of defense and security matters, as well as their vast online presence, makes them appealing to both sides of the aisle.

Female veteran candidates have proven extremely marketable with regard to online content. MJ Hegar’s aforementioned “Doors” campaign ad opens with images of Hegar and her family in their home enjoying a meal together; she introduces herself as an Air Force combat veteran and mom. She describes her experience touring in Afghanistan and her heroism following a significant crash that made her the second woman in American history to earn the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor. Here, Hegar challenges social conceptions of womanhood by subverting the opposition some may perceive between ‘veteran’ and ‘woman.’ And individuals from both Hegar’s district and across the nation responded positively: the candidate raised over $750,000 in the 10 days following the release of “Doors.” Ultimately, Hegar lost her election to John Carter by less than three percentage points.

Amy McGrath’s campaign announcement video, “Told Me,” opens with the following statement: “When I was 12 years old, I knew exactly what I wanted to do when I grew up: I wanted to fly fighter jets and land on aircraft carriers because that’s the toughest flying you could do.” McGrath’s opening statement and precise utilization of the term “tough” serves to circumvent social norms concerning femininity and the “optimal” woman. McGrath’s ad and campaign highlighted her background as a retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel and mom, dismantling misogynistic attitudes regarding career and womanhood. McGrath concludes this specific ad by stating, “some are telling me a Democrat can’t win that battle in Kentucky, that we can’t take back our country for my kids and yours. We’ll see about that.” Here, McGrath highlights her additional identity as a Democrat in contrast to that of her Republican opponents. With “Told Me” garnering over 1.9 million views on YouTube, McGrath demonstrates both the viral potential of female veteran candidates and the political potential of such individuals. In the end, McGrath also lost her election to Andy Barr by less than three percentage points, demonstrating a continued trend regarding female veteran candidates seeking public office in the 2018 election cycle.

Individuals such as Hegar and McGrath act as potential models for the candidates Democrats must invest in during the 2020 election cycle: female veterans in potential swing or Republican districts. These individuals possess a breadth of knowledge concerning defense and security given their military backgrounds, and they represent a change in the status-quo concerning politics in Washington: qualities desired by voters in such districts. These qualities inform such candidates’ campaign ads, which go viral because they tell a story of tenacious women thrusting themselves into fields from which they have been historically excluded. Regardless of party affiliation, people tend to admire this display of bravery. In all, if the Democrats want to retain the House of Representatives in 2020, they must provide female veteran candidates with more campaign funding and long-lasting support.

Sophia Houdaigui