Amy McGrath’s next mission? Finding the reset button before 2020

Published 6:24 pm Monday, July 29, 2019


Louisville Courier Journal

To say that Democrat Amy McGrath provided a master class in what not to do when starting a run for U.S. Senate would be kind.

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The retired-Marine-fighter-pilot-turned-politician is looking to reset, and that starts by keeping a focus on fundraising and messaging. She will skip the annual Fancy Farm picnic on Aug. 3, campaign spokesman Terry Sebastian told me, in order to keep the event’s focus on the statewide constitutional races.

But she “looks forward to being on the stage and speaking as a candidate in 2020,” he said.

The recent addition of the savvy Sebastian, a state government veteran who’s worked as a spokesman for Attorney General Andy Beshear and State Auditor Crit Luallen, demonstrates a commitment to courting Kentucky’s press corps.

McGrath may have skipped a recent interview on MSNBC, much to the delight of Team Mitch, but Sebastian points out she has continued speaking with smaller community newspapers in Kentucky’s rural areas and has interviewed with statewide public radio.

Sebastian’s point being, she isn’t hiding.

But that’s how many will take it, after McGrath’s campaign started with a head-scratching argument that Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell hadn’t been doing enough to help President Donald Trump on things that matter to Kentuckians.

And then came a gut punch to donors and supporters when McGrath told the Courier Journal she would have supported Judge Brett Kavanaugh — a hated figure among liberal America for months — being confirmed to the Supreme Court.

McGrath is now in the unenviable position of being Team Mitch’s main target while also being met with skepticism from the “woke” left, who thinks she is inauthentic.

The missteps were enough for U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, the state’s most powerful Democrat, to invite a primary challenger. The congressman’s son, Aaron, went further in the pages of his publication, the Louisville Eccentric Observer, explaining to readers “why her campaign is already over.”

The next day, Mike Broihier (pronounced Broy-er), a farmer, journalist and former Marine, appeared from out of political nowhere with a slick three-minute advertisement that could give liberal voters their alternative.

Timothy Cooper is one of those disappointed Democrats, who in a letter to the Courier Journal expressed his disappointment in McGrath’s rollout. He said as a Kentuckian who moved to Minnesota, he kept a close eye on McGrath’s 2018 bid for Congress, and longed for an inspiring Democrat to challenge McConnell in 2020.

McGrath seemed to be the perfect contender, he said. But her debut in the Senate race forced him to scrape her bumper sticker off his vehicle and cancel plans to dip into his pocket for her campaign.

“Your authenticity is what attracted us. Your honesty. Your understanding of the issues facing Kentuckians,” Cooper said in the letter. “Who are you now? Have you adopted the same political expediency of your opponents? I am writing to let you know that it’s not too late for you to change back.”

But McGrath’s team says their candidate, who flew 89 combat missions, is staying focused under fire.

“When you roll out a campaign, you’re always going to have critics and pundits,” Sebastian said. “And, of course, McConnell’s people are going pile on, because they’re scared of her as a viable candidate.”

There’s still plenty of cash to rake in and time to reevaluate between now and November 2019, when Kentucky’s gubernatorial race concludes.

And while local skeptics voiced apprehension at the rollout, outside of the Bluegrass borders, many donors are still impressed with McGrath’s abilities.

She was recently spotted at a major fundraiser with Sen. Dick Durbin, of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat, according to sources in attendance.

The stumbles were troubling because McGrath seemed ill-prepared given how Kavanaugh and the sexual assault allegations against him had been in the news for months.

But party folks see that in the rearview, said one such donor, who attended the weekend fundraiser but asked for anonymity in order to speak freely.

“All these people who are bitching about ‘Oh god, it was terrible, we got to find somebody else.’ She’s got $4 million,” the donor said. “Who the hell is going to raise that kind of money? Unless you’re bringing $4 million to the table, they need to chill on the criticism.”

McGrath’s reset will rely heavily on populism.

She gave attention to coal miners this week, who are furious at how Congress declined to act on a tax that finances the federal Black Lung Disability Trust Fund.

It’s a program that benefits disabled workers when coal companies go bankrupt and can no longer pay out medical benefits. The tax had been a $1.10 per ton tax on underground coal but reverted this year back to its 1977 level of 55 cents.

Reuters reported that a group of coal miners traveled to Washington, D.C., seeking help from McConnell, who is charge of the Senate.

George Massey, a miner from Harlan County, said they “rode up here for 10 hours by bus to get some answers from” their senator but met a cold shoulder instead. He said it was a “low-down shame” how McConnell gave them just two minutes of his time.

McGrath gladly pounced on that news and used her social media to trumpet the snub.

“McConnell has failed coal miners time after time, and now he’s making them go to D.C. to ask for help,” McGrath tweeted on July 23. “He is jeopardizing funding for folks with black lung disease. Kentuckians know this is not the way to treat miners who have worked so hard.”

Nationally, as The New York Times mentioned, there is relief among Democrats heading into 2020 that Trump isn’t pressuring McConnell to adopt key proposals coming out of the House — billions of dollars on infrastructure, lowering prescription drug costs and raising the minimum wage — which just happen to mirror much of what McGrath talked about at the outset of her campaign.

The hope among McGrath’s people is that by December 2019 and beyond, Kentucky will think more about McConnell’s coal miner slights, their own interests and her populist message than about those first two weeks.

And it won’t hurt for McGrath to regularly remind us that she used to kill terrorists in F-18 fighter jets for a living.

When Tom Cruise dusted off his 1986 leather jacket to unveil the new “Top Gun” trailer, McGrath — whose call sign was “Krusty,” by the way — seemed ready to be a “Maverick” co-pilot.

“Cool fighter jet scenes,” McGrath tweeted. “… Will we see female carrier pilots this time?”