It took three minutes for former Marine Corps pilot Amy McGrath to show she plans on running a different kind of race against U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell than she ran against Rep. Andy Barr.
McGrath pushed back against the Republican messaging that she’s “too liberal for Kentucky,” in her first interview as a Senate candidate on MSNBC, calling herself a “moderate” and saying she disagreed with Medicare for all and subsidizing health insurance for illegal immigrants. And she went straight for McConnell, accusing him of creating gridlock in D.C. and blocking President Donald Trump’s agenda.
“Kentuckians voted for Trump, they wanted to drain the swamp,” McGrath said. “And Trump said he was going to do that. Trump promised to bring back jobs, he promised to lower drug prices for so many Kentuckians. And that is very important. And who stops them along the way, who stops the president from doing these things? Well, Mitch McConnell.”
The message — that McConnell has created so much dysfunction in Washington that he’s even blocked the policies of a president who remains very popular in Kentucky — is a difficult one. It risks alienating the liberal base, who oppose any Trump policy on principle, while doing little to win over moderate Republicans who have been placated by McConnell’s key role in helping Trump reshape the courts by nominating conservative justices.
McGrath’s appearance on national television provides insight into her strategy in her underdog bid to unseat McConnell. Democrats have struggled to straddle the line to appease both the moderate and liberal members of their party in Kentucky. McGrath appears intent on creating separation between McConnell and Trump in order to win back Democrats who voted for Trump, despite the fact that McConnell has positioned himself firmly in the president’s corner for the past three years.
McConnell, who said last Tuesday he expected there would be high-profile Democrats in the race, didn’t appear concerned when asked about McGrath.
“It will be a spirited race, particularly since I’ve become leader of my party in the Senate, I’ve noticed I get more attention than I used to,” McConnell told reporters in the Capitol. “I look forward to the contest and laying out our differences for the people of Kentucky.”
Billy Piper, McConnell’s former chief of staff who now is now a lobbyist with Fierce Government Relations, called McGrath’s attempt to rebrand “completely laughable.”
“It’s one thing to try to reinvent yourself from positions you held decades ago,” Piper said. “It’s another to reinvent yourself from positions you held minutes ago. She thinks Kentuckians are stupid.”
McGrath’s strategy isn’t necessarily new.
In her 2018 race, just like Tuesday, McGrath attempted to run as a moderate, almost mimicking then Lexington Mayor Jim Gray’s policy positions in the primary before beating him handily. In her first interview on CNN after her 2018 campaign video went viral, McGrath complimented Trump for hiring Marines, getting backlash from some Democrats (she also wouldn’t answer if she supported Medicare for all).
McGrath attempted to bridge the urban and rural divide in her first attempt at running for Congress, opening field offices in every county in the district, but struggled to push back against her liberal image in the congressional race, in part because of her refusal to run traditional negative attacks against U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, in her 2018 campaign.
“We deserve better than a win-at-all-costs mentality,” McGrath said in her concession speech. “I was unwilling and we remain unwilling to be part of the problem. I was unwilling to be part of the problem just to get to the office.”
That mindset appears to have changed.
McGrath laid the blame solely on McConnell’s shoulders for the current political situation in Congress. In her interview with Morning Joe, she went after McConnell, claiming his only major legislative accomplishment was a tax bill that benefited businesses more than the average taxpayer.
“He’s allowed an entire industry of tobacco and coal to decline for decades and not had a plan. And we’ve left entire regions of our state in economic peril, we have one of the lowest wage rates in the country, we have an opioid crisis that is two times the rate in terms of deaths around the country. We have the highest cancer rates in the country,” McGrath said. “We have a senator that is not only not prioritizing these things because he’s prioritizing the interests of special interests, but he’s actively working against Kentuckians when he’s trying to take away healthcare and that sort of thing over and over and over again.”
Creating separation between McConnell and Trump only becomes more difficult in a presidential year.
“Beating McConnell is difficult under the best of circumstances. He’s dispatched more than his share of Democratic stars,” said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the independent Cook Political Report. “Running against him in a presidential year in a state that Trump will easily carry again increases the degree of difficulty exponentially.”
Tres Watson, a Republican consultant, said he expects Trump to visit several times in 2019 because of the governor’s race and he expects Trump’s praise won’t be limited to Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin.
“You’re going to hear it straight from his mouth,” Watson said. “Who are you going to believe, Donald Trump or Amy McGrath?”
Meanwhile, McConnell has embraced his relationship with Trump. His own announcement video was layered with the president complimenting McConnell.
“Who are the voters in Kentucky that vote Trump/McGrath?” Piper asked. “That’s just hard to figure out.”
Lesley Clark contributed to this report.