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Amy McGrath's Kentucky campaign relies heavily on donations from New York, California

Ret. Lt. Col. Amy McGrath, right, spoke during a 6th District Congressional candidate forum. Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, left, and McGrath are contenders for the Democratic primary coming up May 22.
Ret. Lt. Col. Amy McGrath, right, spoke during a 6th District Congressional candidate forum. Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, left, and McGrath are contenders for the Democratic primary coming up May 22.

Nearly half of Kentucky congressional candidate Amy McGrath's itemized donations have come from New York, California and Massachusetts, giving her chief opponent an opening to criticize McGrath's lack of Kentucky connections.

McGrath has sought to paint Lexington Mayor Jim Gray as the establishment candidate in the Democratic primary for Central Kentucky's 6th Congressional District, but much of her money has come from donors in states that are far more liberal than Kentucky.

“The hypocrisy is thick knowing the McGrath camp has taken mountains of national money and would, without any doubt, gladly accept donations from all of our supporters,” said Jamie Emmons, campaign manager for Gray.

Of the itemized donations McGrath has received so far, 80 percent of the money came from outside Kentucky, according to a Herald-Leader analysis of campaign finance data. In comparison, 75 percent of Gray's itemized donations have come from Kentuckians.

The analysis is limited to itemized donations, which means it does not include those who give less than $200 to a campaign. Itemized donations make up only 41 percent of the total money McGrath's campaign has raised, but the campaign confirmed that about 75 percent of it's small-dollar donors also come from out of state.

McGrath, a Kentucky native who moved to the district from the Washington D.C. area after retiring from the Marines last summer, has relied heavily on donors from outside Kentucky to raise her name recognition and make the campaign competitive.

“When a veteran in Iowa donates to my campaign, I’m running in Kentucky, he has no reason to donate to my campaign,” McGrath said on the Netflix show Chelsea last fall. “He donates because he wants better government. He’s not a special interest, he doesn’t want a kickback. It’s the same thing with folks like you and that’s why I’m not shying away from this.”

McGrath also is collecting money from thousands of Kentuckians — 4,468 donors are from Kentucky, according to her campaign, more than Gray's 3,477.

Gray's average donation is $284.88, according to his campaign, but his itemized donations make up 85 percent of the money he has raised so far, a sign that a lot of his campaign cash comes in large amounts.

The McGrath campaign has said it had to raise money out of state because Gray locked up all the large donors in Kentucky as a member of the Democratic establishment. McGrath emphasizes the amount of small money donations she has received — 90 percent of her donors have given less than $200 — and she uses it to paint a contrast between her and Gray.

“Amy is the right candidate for the right time and people around the country took to her story,” said Mark Nickolas, McGrath's campaign manager.

McGrath is one of several Democratic candidates who attracted national media attention this year. But unlike some of those other high-profile candidates, such as Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania or Randy Bryce in Wisconsin, she is not running in a special election or trying to unseat a member of House Leadership.

Instead, she fits the cultural moment. She’s a woman running as the nation reconciles with its long history of sexism. She’s a former fighter pilot who is joining a wave of other military veterans seeking office. She’s a political newcomer in an era where political experience matters less.

She also had a well-timed campaign announcement that went viral across the country.

Video titled "Told Me" which announces U.S. Congressional campaign of retired Marine Lt. Colonel Amy McGrath (D) in Kentucky's Sixth Congressional District.

“That first ad alone, the social media bang she got from that was significant,” said Billy Piper, a former chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell.

It exposed McGrath to Democratic pockets of the country still reeling from the 2016 Presidential Election. Along with being on liberal-leaning shows like Chelsea, McGrath has pulled in checks from celebrities like George Clooney and Rosie O'Donnell, executives at Google, Massachusetts attorneys and New York City investment bankers.

“I think Democratic donors on the coast don’t live in a competitive district so they want to have an impact,” said Nathan Gonzalez, a political analyst for Inside Elections.

Kentucky's 6th District is the most competitive in a state that has rapidly turned Republican. Gonzalez ranks the district's election as "leans Republican," but national Democrats see it as winnable. To play defense, the House Republican's political action committee has set up one of its 30 field offices in the district represented by U.S. Rep. Andy Barr.

McGrath's donations match a trend of nationalized congressional elections. Cindy Kam, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, said congressional elections used to be based on local issues. Now, as politics has become more partisan and feels more like a team sport, people have started paying attention to how their “team” is doing across the country.

“Thirty years ago, these races were very localized but now local voters are thinking about national politics and local donors are thinking about national politics,” Kam said. “And every one is feeling like their team is winning or losing.”

Democrats see 2018 as a chance to win, in large part because of President Donald Trump. Kentucky was the first state to be called for Trump in 2016.

“If Donald Trump doesn’t get elected, then I don’t think we’re talking about Amy McGrath raising this kind of money,” Gonzalez said.

The final pre-election campaign finance reports show McGrath collecting $237,681 in April and the first two days of May, while Gray collected $190,743. Gray had more cash on hand, however, with $436,385 compared to McGrath's $301,894.

State Sen. Reggie Thomas has struggled to keep up financially. He raised $33,889 in April and early May and had $14,571 on hand. Democrats Theodore Green, Daniel Kemph and Geoff Young are running limited campaigns.

Amy McGrath, a candidate for a congressional seat, reveals her focus and qualifications for the job.

Jim Gray, a candidate for a congressional seat, reveals his focus and qualifications for the job. Jim Gray has served Lexington as mayor for 7 years, and prior as vice mayor.

Reggie Thomas, a candidate for a congressional seat, reveals his focus and qualifications for the job.

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