Despite loss, McGrath could be pivotal in Kentucky Democratic politics

Published 6:13 am Wednesday, November 14, 2018


Guest columnist

As Democrats gained power nationally Tuesday, they continued to fall short in Kentucky, doing little to improve their future prospects here, and by one measure hitting a historic low. But now some hope their most prominent loser will lead them to a turnaround.

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Republicans lost the U.S. House, but gained seats in the Senate, making life easier for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. In his home state, McConnell’s party used its big advantages — money and President Trump — to keep its supermajority in the state House, a result few expected.

Another set of results, as yet unreported, may be the best evidence that Kentucky is now a firmly Republican state, from top to bottom. For the first time, most of the state’s elected county judge-executives are Republicans: 73, to only 44 for Democrats. Three are independents.

Republicans had already edged into a majority of judge-execs through 12 appointments made by Gov. Matt Bevin, and 11 of those 12 appointees were elected Tuesday, said Vince Lang, executive director of the Kentucky County Judge-Executives Association.

The grassroots results gave the unpopular Bevin a boost for re-election and reflected a trend across the state and much of the nation: Rural areas got redder and urban areas got bluer. Democrats will have a supermajority on the Louisville Metro Council and two more Louisville-area House seats — but no state legislator west of Henderson, where they lost a longtime senator, Dorsey Ridley.

Republicans’ legislative gains were driven by the huge financial advantage the party enjoys by holding the governorship and majorities in both houses. In addition to the advantage of incumbency, they also benefited from close to $1 million spent by outside groups, much of it on ads (many false or misleading) attacking Democrats.

Trump made only one visit to Kentucky, to boost Rep. Andy Barr in the 6th Congressional District, but news coverage made the whole election about him, so he helped Republicans from top to bottom, especially in rural areas.

The rural-urban divide was decisive in the 6th District, where Democrat Amy McGrath beat her own campaign’s projections by getting 59.6 percent of the vote in Lexington, but Barr countered that with rural margins bigger than in 2012, in his second and winning race against Democrat Ben Chandler.

McGrath outraised Barr, but Republicans outspent Democrats on TV and radio in the district, $7 million to $5 million, thanks mainly to House Speaker Paul Ryan’s PAC, which often echoed Barr’s repeated use of McGrath’s description of herself at a Massachusetts fundraiser: “I am further left, I am more progressive, than anyone in the state of Kentucky.”

McGrath said in interviews that she meant “anyone who has ever won this seat” and was talking about an issue she couldn’t recall. She challenged Republicans to release their entire recording, and accused Barr of lying about her, but never did those things in paid media — perhaps taking too far her admirable strategy of not running attack ads.

McGrath’s campaign was supposed to be an antidote to a big piece of the pathology of our political system. Instead, it confirmed the strength of current political biology: get money, buy attack ads, mislead and scare voters.

“Some may criticize our choice not to get in the mud and return fire with fire,” McGrath said in her concession speech. “We must demand a more civil tone and tenor in our politics. We deserve better than a win-at-all-costs mentality. I was unwilling — and will remain unwilling — to be part of the problem just to get the office.”

“Remain unwilling” suggests that McGrath will take that stand in at least one more race, and her campaign manager told the Lexington Herald-Leader the day after the election that she should run for governor — taking advantage of her momentum and national fund-raising base to offer Kentucky’s other five districts a fresh face in a race that is crucial for Democrats’ future in the state.

That sounds logical on its face, but McGrath has shown little if any interest in state issues, and jumping into the race could be an invitation to stick her foot in her mouth, as she did early in her first race. Her recorded words will be used against her again, and voters could deem her too liberal. But her national funding base, in a year with few other races, could be decisive in the primary and make her competitive with the wealthy incumbent.

And if not that race, which one? Against McConnell in 2020? He’s even more unpopular than Bevin, but is likely to be on a ballot headed by Trump, who will have much appeal in Kentucky even as an unindicted co-conspirator or impeached and un-convicted president.

The path McGrath chooses could steer the direction of Kentucky politics for years to come.

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.