In my recent presentation about personal storytelling I referred to the 2017 campaign launch videos of M.J. Hegar (“Doors”) and Amy McGrath (“Told Me”) as exemplary instances of that genre. I encourage readers to spend a total of six minutes watching their videos before reading the rest of this post. These videos were too long to be television commercials but were released on YouTube and, as intended, quickly went viral.
Heroic Warrior Women
Both Hegar and McGrath present themselves in their videos as heroic warrior women. Early in their lives they decided to become military pilots and ultimately they achieved that goal, overcoming the resistance of the military establishment and the indifference of male politicians. Both served their country well: McGrath was unscathed after almost 100 missions but Hegar’s helicopter was shot down by the Taliban and she was wounded.
Both were attempting to pivot to politics by running for Congress as Democrats in deep red districts, Hegar in rural Texas and McGrath in rural Kentucky. In her video, Hegar was fighting political corruption, namely her opponent’s refusal to meet with individuals who hadn’t donated to his campaign. McGrath’s issue was health care, her support for the Affordable Care Act against Republican attempts at repeal.
Both instantiate the heroic fable, depicting a person who has overcome challenges to serve the nation militarily and who then aspires to to enhance the public good by defeating a political opponent. Each displays courage, dedication, altruism, skill, and persistence.
Though their narrative arcs are similar, the two ads have a different look and feel. McGrath speaks directly to the viewer accompanied by a standard upbeat musical soundtrack – a traditional approach. “Doors” is edgy, using a jangly guitar accompaniment evoking The Rolling Stones and having Hegar, who is the extradiegetic narrator, several times interrupts her own narrative from within the video — a neat device. You’ve watched them – right? – so you know what I mean.
By going viral, the ads gave Hegar and McGrath immediate prominence and enabled them to raise millions of dollars. New York Times writer Jason Zengerie argued that the ads had the difficult task of speaking to two audiences, conservative voters in Texas and Kentucky and liberal donors elsewhere. He concluded that they did this by focusing on Hegar’s and McGrath’s compelling life stories rather than their policy positions. But their life stories are compelling, and it would have been foolish not to emphasize them.
In 2018, both Hegar and McGrath ran against incumbent Republican Congressmen, John Carter and Andy Barr respectively, career politicians with law degrees but no military service. Both women lost by approximately 3 percent of the vote, far smaller margins than Carter’s and Barr’s previous Democratic challengers had achieved. The Democrats did very well in the 2018 midterm elections, and the blue wave almost swept Hegar and McGrath into office.
The Senate Campaigns
Hegar and McGrath won the Democratic nominations in 2020 to challenge John Cornyn and Mitch McConnell, respectively. McGrath’s primary was a close contest, as she eked out a narrow win over Charles Booker, a Black state legislator who represented the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. A split within the party probably didn’t help her in the general election.
Hegar lost by a distant but respectable 9 percentage points to Cornyn but McGrath lost by a landslide 20 point margin. The Democrats had high hopes of defeating incumbent Republican Senators McConnell, Cornyn, Collins, Graham, Ernst, and Daines, but all were handily re-elected, so it is hard to say that Hegar and McConnell did much worse than their fellow Democratic challengers.
Women Warriors versus Girlie Men
One could disparage both Cornyn and McConnell with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s taunt as “girlie men.” Cornyn was just young enough to avoid the draft. McConnell was drafted, was able to enlist in the US Army Reserve in Louisville, a position that would likely not have taken him to Vietnam, and he was quickly discharged with a diagnosis of optic neuritis.
Both men have been career politicians. Cornyn attempts to embrace the values and lifestyle of his state in his biography, which mentions that his father was a bomber pilot in World War II; that he was active in intramural football, basketball, and racquetball in college; that “he owns several firearms and hunts as often as he can”; and that his favourite music is country and western. Mitch McConnell posts little about his personal life. His political record is his persona.
Though I don’t have data to bring to bear on this supposition, I wonder if Hegar’s and McGrath’s military backgrounds didn’t become an obstacle to them. Perhaps Republicans and independents saw traits like courage and persistence in a military context as unfeminine, threatening, and emasculating in a civilian context. Perhaps this led these voters to prefer men without the macho of military service but with political records consistent with their values.
I wonder if Hegar and McGrath will have a next act politically. For now, Hegar is a motivational speaker and McGrath has an autobiography coming out. If they want to return to politics, they might look for seats Democrats have a greater chance of winning.
As a student of narrative, I must conclude that a well-told and inspirational life story is essential to getting noticed and attracting attention and political support, but it isn’t enough to overcome the advantages of incumbency and demographics.