The reaction to former Marine Corps pilot Amy McGrath’s announcement that she would run against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was quick. So was the criticism.
Republicans, as expected, immediately dug up the highlight reel from McGrath’s first campaign against U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, saying she’s too liberal for Kentucky and out of touch with the state. But just as quickly, progressives in Kentucky took issue with one of McGrath’s talking points, in which she accused McConnell of blocking the policies of President Donald Trump.
In an interview with the Herald-Leader Wednesday, McGrath said she isn’t “pro-Trump or anti-Trump” and can’t be put in “some partisan box.”
“We’re so divided, we’re so partisan and we play these sort of bulls--t partisan games so we can’t get anything done,” McGrath said. “And this is the biggest difference between Senator McConnell and myself: I will work with any president, Republican, Democrat, Independent, you name it, to get things that Kentuckians need and Kentuckians want done.”
Just like in her first campaign for congress, McGrath painted herself as someone who rises above party politics to do what is right for her party. Unlike in her first campaign, her responses were littered with a Trump campaign mantra — the image of Washington D.C. as a swamp.
“I’m running against a senator who is the perfect example of the swamp,” McGrath said. “I’m running against the guy who in a sense is the opposite of Donald Trump in so many ways. Because he’s been around forever, he’s part of the dysfunction, he’s part of the establishment, he’s part of the elite.”
McGrath, who faces an uphill battle in a state that hasn’t elected a Democratic senator in the 21st century, said she thinks she has a chance of beating McConnell because he represents the politics Kentuckians rejected when they voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016.
“I get it,” McGrath said. “They’re tired of the dysfunction, they’re tired of nothing getting done, they’re tired of the D.C. elite, they’re tired of the partisanship and they thought that and still many of them still think Donald Trump is there trying to shake things up, trying to drain the swamp, trying to do big things like infrastructure. And they’re giving him the benefit of the doubt.”
The message is similar to the one she used in 2018. It didn’t work. Despite McGrath’s attempts to focus on the rural parts of the district and win them over by talking about “country over party,” partisanship won out in the end. McGrath ran up the margins in Lexington, while losing big in the rural parts of the district. The result was a three percentage point loss to Barr.
McGrath continued to attempt to walk the line between Democrats and Republicans as she talked with local reporters Wednesday. In an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal, she said despite believing Christine Blasey-Ford’s allegations against Justice Brett Kavanaugh, she would have voted to confirm him to the Supreme Court. “You know, I think that with Judge Kavanaugh, yeah, I probably would have voted for him,” McGrath said. But by evening, McGrath took to Twitter to say she had changed her mind and would have voted against Kavanaugh.
McGrath has consistently taken more moderate positions since she first ran for office, and stayed away from embracing some of the more liberal positions that aided the rise of other first time candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York. But statements she made at campaign events allowed Republicans to easily paint her as liberal, playing into a long-held Republican strategy to tie Democratic candidates to the unpopular national Democratic Party.
“She compared President Trump’s election to 9/11, called President Trump’s wall stupid and launched her campaign on MSNBC,” said Kevin Golden, McConnell’s campaign manager. “Her campaign messaging may be confusing but her extremely liberal core beliefs are crystal clear.”
McGrath, who learned just how pervasive the Republican messaging can be, said there was nothing she could do about Republicans calling her “too liberal.”
“I can’t control what the Republicans are going to say,” McGrath said. “I’ve said the same thing for the past two years, this is who I am.”
The earliest opportunity McGrath would have to confront McConnell’s criticism at the same event would have come at the annual Fancy Farm Political Picnic in Graves County. While McGrath wouldn’t be invited to speak from the famed Fancy Farm stage, candidates often attend the festivities surrounding the picnic to engage with voters and criticize their opponents.
McGrath said Wednesday she would pass on the event this year.
“I think the focus needs to be on the governor’s race this year and the statewide race,” McGrath said. “We really need to get rid of Governor Bevin and I think that’s where the focus needs to be.”