Why Amy McGrath is this year’s big hope for Kentucky Democrats

Published 6:48 am Thursday, October 25, 2018


Guest Columnist

OWINGSVILLE — To this old tobacco town of 1,500, where being a Democrat is no longer an article of faith, came a campaign that could have much to say about the future of the Democratic Party in Kentucky — and maybe politics at large.

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More than 2,000 people came to the Bath County High School gym, from all over the 6th Congressional District and beyond, to see former Vice President Joe Biden beat the drum for Amy McGrath, the Democrat who has out raised three-term Republican Rep. Andy Barr and is running neck-and-neck with him — in a district that has been trending Republican, and that President Trump carried by 15 points.

The next day, Oct. 13, Trump drew more than 6,000 to a Richmond rally at which he promoted Barr but made clear that the race — and all other congressional midterms — are a referendum on his presidency.

For Kentucky Democrats depressed by losses they took under Barack Obama, McGrath is this year’s big hope. Her fighter-pilot biography and national fundraising base pushed her past Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, national Democrats’ early favorite, in the May primary, and she seems to have a celebrity aura that has insulated her from one of the heaviest, harshest and falsest barrages of attack ads ever seen in a Kentucky election.

But many of the ads use McGrath’s own words against her: For unrestricted rights to abortion, calling Trump’s proposed border wall “stupid” and a self-description apparently recorded by a Republican spy in another state: “I am further left, I am more progressive, than anyone in the state of Kentucky.”

McGrath says she was talking about “anyone who has ever won this seat” and was responding to a question about an issue, one she says she can’t recall: perhaps guns or transgender military service.

She has responded to the attacks from Barr and House Speaker Paul Ryan’s PAC, but with dismissive denials and tweaks, not outright attacks on Barr. (Her Democratic allies are attacking him, but at much lower levels.)

“I want to not just win the seat,” she says. “I want to do it in the right way and do what’s best for our country right now and ultimately I want to be, and believe that I am, a leader by example.” She says voters like that, and together they will send a message to the political establishment, which some of her yard signs say she is “taking on.”

But for Democrats who came to Owingsville, many of whom told me they’d never been to a political rally before, she’s taking on Trump.

“After Trump got elected, we got involved,” said Fred Herrington of Cynthiana, a retired school administrator.

Herrington and several other Democrats said they welcomed Obama’s election, but his presidency was bad for the party in Kentucky, as white rural Democrats felt little in common with the urban African American who never campaigned among them.

“I thought Obama would bring healing to the country, but the exact opposite happened,” Herrington said. “I discovered I had friends who were for a black man being president as long as he wasn’t president.” In that sort of atmosphere, Democrats were discouraged from talking Democratic, from talking up their president and their party.

There’s an old saying about winning elections: “You’ve got to get the talk right,” and for a decade the talk in Kentucky has been wrong for Democrats.

Obama’s anti-coal policies were a key in Barr’s defeat of Democrat Ben Chandler in 2012, and Hillary Clinton’s anti-coal remarks may have given Trump a boost in Kentucky that elected a Republican supermajority to the state House in 2016.

Now Democrats have a new face, McGrath, who may help legislative candidates in her district and is already being talked about as a potential candidate for governor or U.S. senator.

That’s very premature, but she IS a phenomenon, and her military background has made Democrats who’ve been voting Republican — and even some Republicans — take a look.

Doug Stone, an Owingsville Republican, came to the Democratic rally in a dark suit and waved a small American flag, and said he had voted for Trump but came to see Biden. Asked afterward what he thought, he wouldn’t say if he’d vote for McGrath. But he did say, “You can’t beat ’em when they’re retired out of the military.”

McGrath is something of an outlier among Democrats, with a unique biography and calls for collaboration with Republicans. But for Bluegrass Democrats, that gets the talk right.

The world’s biggest talker, Trump, made false claims against McGrath, saying she’s for “open borders” and “a socialist takeover of your health care.” McGrath, who was spurred to run by Trump’s election but has avoided taking him on directly, for fear of stirring up his base, replied simply: “Mr. President, you clearly don’t know me. Yet.”

Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media. His opinions are his own, not UK’s.