No matter who wins Tuesday’s Democratic primary for the 6th District congressional seat, Republican U.S. Rep. Andy Barr should be worried.
The 19-county Central Kentucky district has been increasingly conservative outside Fayette and Franklin counties, but it remains competitive. With President Donald Trump hugely unpopular beyond his base — and Gov. Matt Bevin acting like a Trump “mini-me” — there’s a lot of political wind blowing against Barr.
Backlash is what got Barr elected in the first place. The unpopularity of President Barack Obama among conservatives helped Barr come within 700 votes of beating Democratic Rep. Ben Chandler in 2010. Two years later, he won.
In the next two elections, Barr was challenged by Elizabeth Jensen and the Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper. Both were capable, but neither had enough money to seriously challenge Barr, a darling of the banking industry who has proudly fought consumer-protection laws and agencies that threaten the industry’s profits.
Barr had about $2.5 million for each race, while Jensen had $890,000 and Kemper $455,000, according to the Federal Election Commission. Obama was still in office and, when Kemper ran, Hillary Clinton was as unpopular as Trump.
This time, things are much different. Democrats are energized and have two candidates with enough fundraising potential to go head-to-head with Barr. Amy McGrath has raised $2 million. Jim Gray, who put $2.5 million of his own money into his unsuccessful 2016 challenge of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, has raised $1.3 million.
Barr again has $2.5 million, plus access to much more. But Democrats in Kentucky and nationally think he is vulnerable, and many will be happy to open their wallets for either Gray or McGrath.
State Sen. Reggie Thomas, the first candidate to enter the Democratic primary, raised only $331,000. Most of the momentum seems to be behind McGrath and Gray, and Tuesday’s election looks like it will be closer than anyone expected.
Gray is a popular and successful two-term mayor of Lexington. He is openly gay, but that hasn’t been much of a factor in his political campaigns. In his Senate campaign, Gray narrowly beat Paul in the 6th District.
Before getting into politics as Lexington’s vice mayor, Gray built his family’s construction company into a major builder of manufacturing plants such as Toyota, which have brought good jobs to Kentucky. He brings a lot of political and business experience — and success — to the race.
But Gray didn’t enter the race until last December. His candidacy was egged on by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which then didn’t think McGrath could beat Barr. That allowed McGrath to get several months’ head start and paint Gray as the “establishment” candidate.
McGrath is an attractive candidate for different reasons than Gray. Originally from Northern Kentucky, she became one of the Marine Corps’ first female fighter pilots, retiring as a lieutenant colonel.
Even in this “me too” political year when women are winning across the country, McGrath’s resume makes her stand out. She has raised money and enthusiasm both nationally and within the district. There are a lot of McGrath yard signs in Lexington neighborhoods that have always voted for Gray.
How close is this race? Close enough that Gray felt the need last week to go negative in what has mostly been a kid-glove primary. He criticized McGrath for being new to the district. That was a risky move, because it allowed her to point out that fighter pilots don’t get to choose where they live. Veterans' political groups were quick to criticize Gray.
The biggest debate I hear among Democratic voters is whether Gray or McGrath has a better chance of beating Barr. Both sides make good arguments. I suspect most Democrats will wake up Wednesday ready to vote for either one in November.
Whoever wins, Barr’s defense will be predictable. He will talk about the “extreme liberal Obama-Clinton-Pelosi agenda of more taxes, more regulations, and more government control” that his spokesman mentioned when Gray entered the race.
Barr is the favored candidate of Central Kentucky’s business establishment. But among average voters, he will have to offer more than tired talk-radio rhetoric.
Outside his base, Trump is widely viewed as a vulgar, corrupt and ignorant bully, an international embarrassment if not a threat to national security. Barr will have to defend his unwavering support for Trump and his policies.
In addition, only 16 percent of Americans approve of the Republican-controlled Congress, while 73 disapprove. Barr will have to defend his efforts to repeal health care reform, which filled his public meetings with angry constituents, and huge GOP tax cuts that mostly helped wealthy people and corporations while adding $1.5 trillion to the national debt.
The 6th District House seat has flipped five times since 1979. Either Gray or McGrath could make this year number six.