The main contenders for Texas’ 31st Congressional District could not be starker. Their distinctions were on full display during two recent events.
Republican John Carter stood at a podium in a room lined with campaign signs at the Cathedral Oaks Event Center in Belton. “It’s a war. … We’re going to win. I’m ahead, and I will stay ahead,” the congressman said at a Women for Carter event. “I will beat this lady.”
Democrat MJ Hegar sat in an oversized chair with her young son on her lap at a supporter’s home tucked into the Wildflower neighborhood in Temple.
“This is why I’m doing it — for my kids and your kids and the world they’re growing up into,” Hegar said.
Carter, an eight-term congressman, joked about the need to build a wall between Williamson and Travis counties to protect his seat from Austinites while Hegar, an Air Force veteran, discussed her idea for Bell County to become a hub for the organic food movement that is popular in the Texas capital.
Realtor Jean Shine, who introduced the congressman at an event, said Carter listens to his constituents and answers their calls.
Hegar, though, said her opponent, for whom she once voted, is an absent representative, and — despite his years of walking the halls of the U.S. Capitol — is not known among members of Congress.
Carter touted his party’s successes — most notably the country’s strong economy — and he stressed his full-fledged support of President Donald Trump, a man who he once called “a salesman on steroids.”
As Carter embraces Trump, Hegar is hoping to be part of a group of freshmen lawmakers led by veterans from both parties that can restore bipartisanship in the nation’s capital.
These are parts of the two candidates’ visions as they compete to be the next representative of Bell and Williamson counties in the U.S. House.
Historically, District 31 has gone unnoticed by national media and, even, the national parties.
But with a three-minute viral ad, Hegar propelled her long-shot campaign into the limelight. With that came the backing of the national Democrats and money — lots of money. Since launching her campaign last year, Hegar raised more than $3.5 million. For comparison, the six Democrats who ran in this district since it was created in 2002 raised $388,563.
While the congressman has been outraised by his opponent, he still raised nearly $1.6 million.
All of these factors have led to the Cook Political Report — an independent, non-partisan newsletter — to rate District 31 as “Lean Republican.” That means that Carter has a slight edge in this race, but Hegar has made it competitive.
Libertarian Jason Hope, who hasn’t actively campaigned, also is on the ballot.
“I think the economy is our No. 1 issue,” Carter said, pointing to the record unemployment rate and tax cuts as two reasons the Republican Party should continue to remain in power in Congress.
The U.S. unemployment rate is 3.7 percent — the lowest in about 50 years. Bell County’s unemployment rate is slightly higher at 4.2 percent while Williamson County has a 3.2 percent rate, according Bureau of Labor Statistics data from August.
“The kids who are now graduating from college have an excellent chance to find a job, whereas four years ago they had a lousy chance to find a job,” Carter said. “We’re changing that.”
There is still work to do on the economy, Hegar said. She pointed to how wages have stagnated when adjusted for inflation.
“Most people like to jump to infrastructure. The reason they do that, I agree, we need infrastructure investment for job creation but also for broadband, water, health care services,” Hegar said.
On top of that, Hegar said the district needs to take advantage of its abundance of solar and wind and create renewable energy jobs.
“I have a good friend in the nutrition industry in Austin who thinks that Bell County could be doing this reciprocal thing with Austin” for organic farming, Hegar said. “People are healthier when they eat the food grown in their area. It helps with allergies.”
Considering the U.S. Census Bureau estimates there are more than 94,000 uninsured people in District 31, health care is a top priority for both candidates.
Hegar is a proponent of a single-payer health care model while Carter prefers a more market-driven approach.
“Health care is the biggest price fixing thing we’ve got in the whole country,” Carter said. “It was before Obamacare. It completely was under Obamacare. The truth is we need to get back to a free market, and let people compete with that.”
Carter opposes the Affordable Care Act and wants it repealed. Last year, he voted to repeal and replace the Obama-era law with the Trump-backed American Health Care Act. That bill failed to pass the U.S. Senate.
While Hegar backs universal health care coverage, she said she would only support a bill that emphasizes quality and affordable care while also giving patients control.
“All we’re talking about is putting out the insurance agencies, which I think most people can agree are screwing all of us. I mean that’s something we can agree on,” Hegar said, explaining that people’s insurance is dependent upon their job. “We need options. At the very least, we need an option to buy into Medicare.”
Carter opposes socialized medicine.
“These people have big money, and they’re spending it,” Carter said of the people donating to Democratic candidates such as Hegar this election. “The world they want is the government running their lives from cradle to grave. It’s no different than the world in the Soviet Union and China. Wake up. You can call it whatever you want to. It’s government running your life.”
Universal health care is a misunderstood issue, Hegar said.
“I’ve heard people actually think that your health care coverage is going to be run like the DMV, like the government shouldn’t be running it,” she said. “I think there are plenty of models that have nothing to do with the government running your health care.”
As early voting begins and Election Day inches closer, both candidates are confident they will pull off a victory.
This year, 198 veterans are running for the U.S. House, according to With Honor, a non-partisan super PAC. That is exciting for Hegar.
“I’m just excited about the ability to go with an ideologically excited freshmen class who are not jaded; who are not there for their resumes; who are servant leaders; who are ready to put the good of the country first even if we disagree about how to get there,” she said.
Hegar expects that if more veterans are elected to Congress on Nov. 6 the hyper-partisan nature of Washington D.C. should subside.
“Half the issues we argue about should be bipartisan,” she said. “They turn partisan because people want to play a high school football game with other people’s legacies and score points. I really think that veterans are a really good solution to that.”
Carter is optimistic about his chances next month. If Republicans turn out in similar numbers to prior elections, he said, then his party will continue to win in Bell and Williamson counties.
“We have to win. We will fight to win. I am fighting seven days a week, and have been since I got into Congress,” he said.