U.S. Rep. Andy Barr turned back Democrat Amy McGrath and the Democratic wave she was riding Tuesday as Central Kentucky voters narrowly handed the Lexington Republican his fourth term in Congress.
In an election widely seen as a referendum on the president, Kentucky’s Sixth Congressional District told the country they still support Donald Trump.
“Six years ago, we marked the beginning of a journey together. We knew that the path would neither be smooth nor straight, but we pledged ourself to nothing less than the full-scale renewal of the American Dream,” Barr said in his victory speech from Lexington Monday night. “Tonight, thanks to the people of central and eastern Kentucky, that journey continues.”
The district, which spans from the foothills of Appalachia to the Bluegrass, is Kentucky’s only swing congressional district. On Tuesday, voters helped Barr paint it a deeper shade of red, giving him a 51 percent to 47.8 percent victory.
“Donald Trump was the 800 pound gorilla sitting on this congressional race,” said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky. “Barr could not escape his shadow and run a local campaign because the public was going to view it as a referendum on the president.”
McGrath was Barr’s toughest competition yet. The first female Marine to fly into combat in an F-18, McGrath captured national attention as Democrats searched for a fresh response to Trump. She upset Lexington Mayor Jim Gray in the May Democratic primary with a message of putting the country before her political party.
But her moment stopped short on election night.
Barr went up with attack ads early in August, nationalizing the election and defining McGrath as out of touch with the district.
Almost all of his ads ended by saying McGrath was “too liberal for Kentucky,” often pulling her own quote from a fundraiser in Massachusetts where she said she was more progressive than anyone in the state.
The message appeared to stick, effectively undermining her narrative of putting country over party. Her decision not to run traditional attack ads also allowed him to steer the conversation in the race.
In her concession speech, McGrath said she did not regret her decision to run an unconventional campaign.
“We deserve better than a win-at-all-costs mentality,” McGrath said. “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.”
Both candidates had plenty of money to get their messages to voters, breaking campaign finance records in the Central Kentucky district.
McGrath raised more in just one quarter than other candidates had raised during an entire election. The two candidates spent more than $10.4 million over the course of the campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. At least $8.3 million more was spent by outside groups supporting Barr and McGrath.
More than $3.5 million came from the Congressional Leadership Fund, House Speaker Paul Ryan’s super PAC. The group spent $2.8 million on television ads that often mimicked Barr’s attacks and, by setting up a field office in the district, redoubled his efforts to knock on doors and call voters.
While Republicans in some competitive House districts distanced themselves from Trump, Barr went out of his way to stress his access to the president. That included bringing Trump to Richmond in early October, where he painted a stark picture of a country governed by Democrats.
Trump made the conversation about immigration, attempting to stoke fear over an approaching caravan of refugees and illegal immigration as Barr toured the district touting his support of the Republican tax reform bill.
Barr also hit on social issues that have proven reliable for Republican candidates in Kentucky, including abortion and coal regulations.
The final vote highlighted a rural and urban divide in the district. McGrath won just two counties, Franklin and Fayette, while Barr won the other 17 counties, often by large margins in less-populated counties.
In his victory speech, Barr acknowledged the divide in the district.
“We must also acknowledge that with tonight’s results and with our fragmented electorate, we still have a lot of work to do,” he said. “Our country is more divided today than it has been in almost half a century and what’s most troubling is how acrimonious our differences have become. It’s senseless and counterproductive to debate who started it. We simply must solve the problem.”
McGrath’s loss leaves Democrats again scrambling in a state that at one time was firmly in their control. She tried to woo rural Democrats who had largely deserted the party by playing up her military background and stressing the need for civility, but their rebuke leaves Democrats without a clear strategy for winning major races in the state.
McGrath said she is unsure about her future in politics, but said she hopes her supporters will not give up on the message of her campaign.
“Folks, we can lick our wounds for tonight, just for tonight,” McGrath said. “Let’s get back on the horse and resume our work for a more perfect union.”
Herald-Leader reporters John Cheves and Karla Ward contributed to this story.
6th Congressional District
- Andy Barr 154,468
- Amy McGrath 144,730
- Frank Harris 2,150
- Rikka L. Wallin 1,011
- James Germalic 522