Three substantive Democrat candidates are already campaigning hard for the 31st District Congressional seat held by longtime Republican incumbent John Rice Carter.
But their chances of success in next year's elections, as well as Carter's, may hinge on whether a war heroine, author or champion of women's equality gets into the race.
Christine Eady Mann, a Cedar Park family physician; Mike Clark, a geospatial engineer from Georgetown; and Kent Lester, a former U.S. Army officer and former educator who lives in Cedar Park; all have set their sights on winning the March 6, 2018 Democratic primary for the right to oppose Carter in next year's general election.
Local Democrat activists are excited about the current candidates and their chances of upsetting Representative Carter, a Round Rock resident and former Williamson County judge, who has been in Congress for 14 years. But they are also intrigued about the possibility that decorated war veteran and women's champion Mary Jennings Hegar may enter the Democrat primary.
Hegar, who lives in Austin, was a pilot on an Air National Guard medevac helicopter that was shot down in Afghanistan in 2009. Despite being wounded, she used her weapon to furiously fight off a group of enemy attackers and save the lives of her patients and crew. She was awarded a number of medals for her actions, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, a medal that has only been awarded to six women, including Amelia Earhart.
Returning home after three tours of duty, Hegar joined a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Defense in an effort to eliminate the military’s Ground Combat Exclusion Policy, which kept female armed service members from officially serving in combat roles despite their long-standing record of doing so with honor. In the face of the suit and Hegar's outspoken opposition, the Pentagon changed its policy.
Hegar has written about her harrowing Afghanistan rescues and her challenge to the Pentagon's rules about women in combat in a book "Shoot Like a Girl: One Woman's Dramatic Fight in Afghanistan and on the Home Front." TriStar is making the book into a major motion picture and, according to The Hollywood Reporter, Academy Award winner Angelina Jolie is negotiating to play the role of Hegar.
Hegar was not available for comment for this story, but local Democrat leaders said she has been attending some of the Democratic meetings in the district and is clearly looking at the race, although she has not yet made a decision about whether or not to file as a candidate for next year's elections.
The three Democrat candidates in the race said they are undaunted by the possibility that Hegar might bring her star power to the campaign.
"I have heard that she is thinking about it," said Clark. "If she enters it will be another good Democratic voice."
Lester welcomes the challenge of a diverse primary.
"A primary is healthy for us," said Lester. "We went a long time when there was no one running."
Mann was somewhat more circumspect.
"I think it's great to have a choice among candidates in a Democratic primary, as long as the candidates have a track record of supporting Democrats and the principles of the Democratic Party," Mann said.
Whatever the possibility of Hegar's entry into the race, all of the current Democrat candidates are united about the opportunity and the importance of unseating the 75-year-old Carter.
"Unfortunately, his office is indifferent to hearing from people who disagree with him," Mann has said.
Clark was the Democrat nominee against Carter in 2016 and was defeated.
"He has been in a long time and gotten little or nothing done in terms of legislation for our community," Clark said of Congressman Carter.
A call to Carter's office seeking his comments on the 2018 race was not returned.
"He is taking us for granted, he doesn't show up," said Lester. "I think that our democratic institutions are under attack and need to be defended. Our future is being taught that the judicial system is rigged. That our election system is rigged. That the media is rigged. That the free press is our enemy. We must stop that false indoctrination."
Brian Cronin, a local democratic activist, said the District 31 primary demonstrates the growth and resurgence of the party.
"We already have three hardworking candidates in the race,” Cronin said. “They are all passionate about representing people of Central Texas and going to DC to improve our government. The primary process will only strengthen their campaigns."
Cronin said if Hegar enters the campaign her candidacy would bring additional attention to the race. "It would also mean that we would have another outstanding candidate stepping forward to work for the citizens of Texas, which is always good news, Cronin said.