Support for fresh faces could help Democrats in Kentucky’s elections

Published 9:37 am Thursday, May 17, 2018


Guest coumnist

The 2018 election season has begun in earnest, with last week’s primaries in Indiana, West Virginia and other states. Those elections had meaning for Kentucky, not only for our May 22 primaries but the 2020 U.S. Senate race.

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The winner of Indiana’s Republican primary for senator was a relative outsider: Mike Braun, a former Democratic state legislator who used his wealth to cast U.S. Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita as insiders of the Washington swamp.

It was the latest sign that 2018 will be another year of outsiders, reflecting the electorate’s unhappiness with the state of things and a desire for fresh faces, this time helping Democrats, not Republicans. There are signs of that in Kentucky’s big race of the year, for the 6th District seat held by three-term U.S. Rep. Andy Barr.

In the Democratic primary, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray appears to be trailing Amy McGrath, a recently retired Marine fighter pilot who stirred nationwide support with an introductory online video months before Gray, 64, entered the race, and now casts herself, 42, as part of “a new generation” that is needed in Congress.

McGrath’s polls show her ahead of Gray, with state Sen. Reggie Thomas in single digits. The race also has three candidates running limited campaigns. For Gray and McGrath, who disagree on little, the race is a battle of biographies.

Gray’s bio is traditional, except that he’s openly gay, which hasn’t seemed to matter much in his elections. He’s a construction executive who carried the district in a 2016 challenge to Sen. Rand Paul, has a fine record as a nonpartisan mayor. He passed up an almost certain third term to challenge Barr, at the behest of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which likes wealthy candidates like Gray who can save the DCCC money, and Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville, the only Democrat in the Kentucky delegation.

McGrath’s story is less typical. A Northern Kentucky native whose accent shows it, she flew combat missions, then taught at the Naval Academy, where she met then-Congressman Ben Chandler of Versailles, a Democrat who lost the seat to Barr in 2012. Chandler told her to call him if he could help her. She says she woke up the morning after Donald Trump was elected president and started thinking about running for Congress.

Chandler, who had been a Gray ally, referred McGrath to Mark Nickolas, who had run Chandler’s unsuccessful fall 2003 campaign for governor – and then his successful bid for the 6th District seat vacated by Republican Ernie Fletcher, who had won the governor’s race. Nickolas had become a filmmaker and says he never expected to do politics again, but was taken with McGrath and her potential, and as a Democrat felt a need to respond to Trump’s election.

For many Democrats in the district, McGrath looks like a better challenger to Barr – a fresh face with no record to attack (other than moving into the district when she retired), a military profile, and perhaps more salable in the district’s rural counties than a gay mayor of the state’s second-largest city.

Many voters may regard Gray as a sort of incumbent, a politician who has been asking for votes on TV in three of the last five years – for re-election in 2014, the Senate in 2016, and now. In this race, his early ads were lackluster, but now they’re better, touting his work against the opioid epidemic and his wish to help education, with a clip of Trump and Vice President Mike Pence – “folks who would rather give tax breaks to rich folks than help kids.”

McGrath has taken a similar swipe at Trump, saying she will fight anyone who wants to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. But it remains to be seen how much a burden the president will be for Barr in a district Trump carried 55-39 over Hillary Clinton.

In West Virginia, a state Trump won 69-26, he helped Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky with a Monday tweet — requested by McConnell — urging voters in the Senate primary to reject Don Blankenship, a former coal operator who spent a year in prison on charges related to an explosion that killed 29 miners.

Blankenship ran a poor third after leading in some private polls, and blamed Trump for his loss. If he had won, it would have ruined GOP chances of unseating Democrat Joe Manchin, greatly risking the GOP majority, and would’ve enabled him to continue the ugly, race-baiting campaign against McConnell and his Chinese-American in-laws on TV stations that serve Eastern Kentucky.

After the election, McConnell gave Fox News’ shift in treatment of the race part of the credit for turning the tide. Wouldn’t want to give an egotistical president too much credit, you know.

Al Cross is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. This column originally appeared in the Courier-Journal.