How Amy McGrath, a fighter pilot, is targeting the economy in race for U.S. House

Amy McGrath, candidate for Congress, marched with supporters during Lexington’s St. Patrick's Day parade.
Amy McGrath, candidate for Congress, marched with supporters during Lexington’s St. Patrick's Day parade.

When Amy McGrath appears in public she often wears her leather pilot’s jacket. Her campaign is branded as her 90th mission. She wastes no time sharing stories about what she experienced as one of the first women to fly in combat.

The former Marine Corps fighter pilot’s military background is her biggest strength in the Democratic primary to unseat U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, and she knows it.

But when her campaign spent $66,620 to send out a 32 page policy plan to 49,000 Democrats in the Sixth Congressional District this weekend, the plan wasn’t about foreign affairs or the military. It was about economic policy.

“When you get into the 2016 race, what seemingly turned the tide for so many rural voters, they felt that this was an economy that did not serve them,” said Mark Nickolas, McGrath’s campaign manager. “If we’re going to communicate with rural voters, let’s communicate in a way with things they value.”

McGrath’s choice to focus on the economy particularly stands out in a race that features Lexington Mayor Jim Gray.

In his time as a politician and candidate, Gray has often touted his business background as one of his main selling points. In 2016, when he ran for Senate against Rand Paul, Gray leaned hard on his experience running his family company, Gray Construction, in attempts to woo rural voters concerned about the economy.

In the Sixth Congressional District in particular Gray Construction has had an outsized impact. Apart from directly employing thousands of people, it also built the Toyota plant in Georgetown.

“Jim has a proven record of accomplishment in business and as mayor and he plans to run on his record,” said Jamie Emmons, Gray’s campaign manager.

McGrath, on the other hand, as a political newcomer is still establishing her credentials. As she’s built up a following since announcing her campaign in August, she’s devoted a lot of her attention to engaging voters outside of Fayette County. Her plan goes a long way in displaying her economic priorities.

The plan leans heavily on her military experience, highlighting Kentucky’s aerospace and aviation industry and the Bluegrass Army Depot through attracting federal money and boosting existing federal grants to improve the district’s technology and manufacturing industries.

McGrath goes into detail about ideas shared by most Democrats vying in the May 22 primary, including Gray and state Sen. Reggie Thomas, D-Lexington. All three support creating better infrastructure, raising the minimum wage, paid parental leave, progressive tax reform and improving the Affordable Care Act.

State Sen. Reggie Thomas has a section on his website regarding the economy that contains three paragraphs about the importance of infrastructure, but his campaign manager, Leo Haggarty, said Thomas has spoken often about an infrastructure plan.

“It will not only create jobs in the building of new roads and bridges, high-speed internet and a modern electric grid, but it will create jobs and will drive the economic engine of Kentucky and the nation for decades to come,” Haggarty said. “It will have a similar effect to building the Interstate Highway System that drove the biggest and longest economic expansion in our nation's history in the 1950s and 1960s.”

While McGrath does not mention her Democratic opposition directly in her plan, she goes after Barr on his support of the effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, as well as his support for the 2017 tax bill, an accomplishment on which Barr is campaigning.

Daniel Desrochers: 502-875-3793, @drdesrochers, @BGPolitics