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‘Part of the problem.’ With Senate in sights, Democrats plot run against how GOP runs D.C.

CAMPAIGN AD: “The Letter” -- Amy McGrath for U.S. Senate

In this video, former Marine Corps fighter pilot Amy McGrath announced that she wants to challenge U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in November 2020.
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In this video, former Marine Corps fighter pilot Amy McGrath announced that she wants to challenge U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in November 2020.

A top Senate Democrat has some stark advice for Amy McGrath, who Tuesday said she’ll challenge Republican titan Mitch McConnell next year for the Senate.

“She has to get people in Kentucky who are fed up with Washington enough to say McConnell is part of the problem,” said Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat.

McGrath’s announcement was another in a series of Democratic moves aimed at flipping the Senate, which McConnell and Republicans have controlled for the past three years.

She’s already focusing on the Washington theme, accusing McConnell as creating inertia. “Kentuckians voted for Trump, they wanted to drain the swamp,” she said Tuesday. “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.”

Democrats need a net gain of four Senate seats next year to control the chamber if President Donald Trump wins re-election, and three if a Democrat wins the White House.

On paper, Democrats would seem to have a big edge. The party will defend 12 seats next year compared to the Republicans’ 22.

But Inside Elections, a nonpartisan research group, estimates that of the Republican seats, only those held by Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Martha McSally of Arizona are tossups.

"Welcome to the race, Amy. #KYSen" @Team_Mitch tweeted along with video on July 9, 2019, after Amy McGrath announced she was challenging Mitch McConnell for his Senate seat.



And Democrats have been frustrated that at least three potentially solid Senate candidates are instead running for president.

That includes Colorado where Gardner is running in a state that Democrat Hillary Clinton won by 5 percentage points in 2016. Several potentially strong Democratic challengers have emerged, and another could be Gov. John Hickenlooper, now running for the Democratic presidential nomination but barely visible in polls.

McSally, a former House member, lost a Senate bid last year to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona. But the state’s other Senate seat was vacant after the death of Sen. John McCain, and McSally was appointed to fill the slot.

She faces a tough race against astronaut Mark Kelly. A May poll by OH Predictive Insights showed her ahead of Kelly by a percentage point. It’s a “dogfight between two former military pilots,” said Mike Noble,managing partner at the research company.

Democrats are now pledging battles in states that are more longshots. In Texas, Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican, is seeking a fourth term in a state where demographics are tilting Democrats’ way.

And Democrats have fresh memories of how then-Rep. Beto O’Rourke came within 2.6 points of defeating Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, last year. O’Rourke is now running for the Democratic presidential nomination, though there’s speculation he could wind up running against Cornyn.

At the moment, MJ Hegar, a former Air Force pilot who lost a congressional bid last year, is challenging the senator, though others could seek the party’s nomination.

A Cornyn loss is still a longshot. Demographic changes seemed to have little impact as he won 48 percent of the Hispanic vote in his Senate race six years ago. Inside Elections Tuesday still rates the race as “likely Republican.”

But, wrote Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of Inside Elections, in Roll Call Tuesday, “It’s not that the Texas Senate race has moved dramatically in the Democrats’ direction in the last six months. But it’s more likely that Republicans will have to spend some time or money (or a combination of the two) defending the seat.”

Maine’s Senate race has a similar outlook. Sen. Susan Collins is the last New England Republican to hold a congressional seat, and she is up against Susan Gideon, speaker of the Maine House.

The big issue: Collins’ vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court last year after he was dogged by allegations of sexual assault, allegations he denied.

Gideon said in a campaign video that “at one point maybe she was different than some of the folks in Washington, but she doesn’t seem that way anymore.”

In Montana, Democrats are hoping another longshot presidential contender, Gov. Steve Bullock, reconsiders and challenges GOP Sen. Steve Daines.

“We’d love to have the strongest possible candidates in every race, so we’ll just see what happens,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan. “There’s a lot of terrific people running for president, if someone determines that they are not likely to succeed, we certainly would welcome them to take a look at another way to serve.”

Democrats hope McGrath’s candidacy will distract and keep McConnell pre-occupied with his own race, said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the independent Cook Political Report.

Yet, she said “it’s worth remembering that McConnell had a competitive race in 2014 and Republicans still managed to win the majority. “

McConnell and Republicans are also facing 2020 complications from within as Republicans have raised alarms over the electability of two candidates, including Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who kicked off a campaign for a Kansas Senate seat on Monday.

Kobach’s launch comes less than a year after he lost the 2018 race for governor in the state, despite President Trump’s support in a state where Republicans outnumber Democrats 2 to 1.

But McConnell, who has made it clear he prefers Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for the job, noted that the filing deadline is still nearly a year away.

And in Alabama, national Republicans have bemoaned the candidacy of Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, who has been accused of sexually assaulting minors and lost a 2017 special election to Democrat Doug Jones.

McConnell dismissed worries about Moore, pointing to a recent Republican primary poll in Alabama that had Moore at a distant third: “I think the people of Alabama have figured this guy out,” McConnell said.







David Lightman is McClatchy’s chief congressional correspondent. He’s been writing, editing and teaching for 47 years, with stops in Hagerstown, Riverside, Calif., Annapolis, Baltimore and since 1981, Washington.
Lesley Clark works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, covering all things Kentucky for McClatchy’s Lexington Herald-Leader. A former reporter for McClatchy’s Miami Herald, she also spent several years covering the White House.
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