Democrats are eager to find a candidate to take on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2020, but no top tier challenger has jumped in yet.
Matt Jones, a well-known Kentucky sports radio personality, says he’s interested. But he’s waiting on Amy McGrath, a Democratic star who lost a Kentucky congressional race in 2018 and is being courted to run for the Senate.
McConnell is a particularly appealing target for Democrats, even though he’s a strong favorite to win. He not only holds the Senate’s most powerful job, but Democrats are still seething over McConnell’s refusal to have the Senate consider Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s 2016 Supreme Court nominee.
Jones said Wednesday, following a report that Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has reached out to McGrath, that he’s “50/50” on waging a bid against McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who launched his campaign for a seventh term in the Senate last summer.
Jones, who opened a sports bar based on his popular radio show and had a weekly slot on ESPN radio to talk about the NFL, said all his contracts would end in time for a Senate run.
“It would be difficult (to leave behind the business ventures), but that also doesn’t mean that it would prevent me from doing it,” Jones told the Herald-Leader.
“Somebody in Kentucky has got to step up and do this. And it will be a huge challenge, this guy is almost impossible to beat, but it’s possible,” Jones said.
The dearth of candidates comes as Democrats believe they have an opportunity to take back control of the Senate in 2020 with Republicans defending 22 seats and Democrats 12.
The Kentucky speculator comes as Democrat Jaime Harrison last week took the first step toward challenging Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina and as Mark Kelly, the retired astronaut and husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, on Tuesday launched a campaign for a Republican-held Senate seat in Arizona.
In Georgia, Democrats have talked with Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost a bid for governor in 2018 and whom some would like to see challenge Georgia Republican Sen. David Perdue. Abrams has vowed to run for elective office again but hasn’t said which one or when.
Yet in North Carolina, Democrats have yet to find a top-tier challenger to Sen. Thom Tillis. And in Kentucky, much of the political oxygen is being used by the governor’s race, where Gov. Matt Bevin is seeking re-election in November.
Three high-profile Democrats are running against him, including Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear, House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins and former Auditor Adam Edelen.
Neither McGrath nor her 2018 campaign manager Mark Nickolas returned calls seeking comment on a Politico report that Schumer contacted McGrath in December and met with her at Democratic campaign headquarters last month to discuss a potential run against McConnell.
Nickolas told Politico that no decision had been made: “The military officer in her always approaches these things pretty methodically and thoughtfully,” he said.
McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot lost a bid to oust Rep. Andy Barr, R-Kentucky, following a campaign rally by President Donald Trump and a barrage of ads that sought to depict her as out of step with conservative Kentuckians.
The outreach by Schumer and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee comes after McGrath in 2018 sought to keep her distance from official Washington. She noted that former Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, whom she defeated in the Democratic primary, was the choice of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Heading onto the Senate floor Wednesday, McConnell chuckled heartily when asked about Schumer’s interest in the race, adding “you should ask him” about the meeting with McGrath. McConnell declined to comment on a McGrath candidacy.
Schumer’s office and the Democratic campaign campaign Committee declined to comment.
Either Democratic candidate would face a tough battle in a state that has been trending more Republican, said Josh Holmes, a McConnell political adviser. He noted McConnell would also share the ballot with Trump, who continues to be popular in Kentucky.
“In a presidential election where turnout if likely to be high, the conservative vote is maximized even higher,” Holmes said. “There are precious few Democrats who would look at the prospects of taking on Senator McConnell in a presidential election year in Kentucky and think this is an opportunity.”
Still, McConnell takes nothing for granted. His team is keeping tabs on Jones and on McGrath, taking her on via Twitter after she retweeted a McConnell critique.
McConnell has continued to stock a political team that includes former Kentucky House Republican Leader Jonathan Shell as campaign chairman. He recently hired Kevin Golden, who oversaw Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn’s successful 2018 Senate campaign and was a field representative for McConnell’s 2014 team in eastern Kentucky.
Never hugely popular at home, McConnell has at time faced tough campaigns and launched his 2020 effort with supporters noting McConnell believes one can never start too early.
McConnell already has more than $4 million in campaign cash and supporters were meeting Wednesday.
McConnell told the Herald-Leader in December that he’s very much aware that he’s hugely unpopular with the national Democratic base.
“I’m sure I’m the one Republican every Democrat in the country will want to beat other than Donald Trump, with whom I will be on the ballot and I do share that honor with him,” McConnell said at the time. “I’m sure it will attract resources all over the country.”
Jones said he has not been contacted by the Democratic campaign committee and has not had official conversations with national Democratic groups.
There is a history of people running against McConnell and then rising to higher office. In 1996, Steve Beshear took a shot at running against McConnell and then went on to be elected governor after McConnell won the Senate race, 56 to 43 percent. Bevin had the same path after he lost a primary to McConnell in 2014 by more than 20 percentage points.
Kentucky Democrats have been in a rebuilding stage as the state has slowly trended more conservative. Republicans control all three branches of state government and hold five of the state’s six seats in the House. Both Kentucky senators are Republican.
Jones has been among the Democrats who say the party can win back former blue-dog, or conservative, Democrats who have started voting for Republicans. Democrats could bring the progressive message on health care, taxes and other issues to a rural audience, he said. McGrath tried in her 2018 House bid.
Jones said he talks to more Trump voters every day than most progressives in the country, and said that even if they don’t like his political message, they still listen to him.
“It used to be okay to disagree and be respectful and I think we’re losing that,” he said.
He said he’s not deterred by McConnell’s infamous operation research teams, noting he’s already been defined to most Kentuckians. “Sports got me in the door, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “But they know where I stand on politics and they still listen.”