Amy McGrath couldn’t ride a “blue wave” to victory, but her strong performance against 6th District congressional incumbent Andy Barr showed that she and the Democratic Party in Kentucky are far from washed up.
So here’s the first big question: Will McGrath stick around, build on her momentum and try again? Will she persist?
Amid the backlash against President Barack Obama in the 2010 mid-term elections, Barr barely lost to incumbent Democrat Ben Chandler. Then he came back two years later and beat him. After that, Barr twice won re-election with at least 60 percent of the vote — until Tuesday, when he won by only 51 percent.
That lesson should not be lost on McGrath or her party. She is a talented campaigner and fundraiser who energized Kentucky Democrats — and especially women — more than any candidate in recent memory.
Before Tuesday night, McGrath had been seen as a rising Democratic star nationally. How does she see herself and her future now? Will the Northern Kentucky native stick around Central Kentucky, keep building her base and challenge Barr again in 2020? Or will she try to leverage her fame for something else?
If there is a lesson in the shifting sands of Kentucky politics it is the need for persistence. Kentucky Republicans rose from oblivion to dominance, but it took them 40 years. Kentucky follows national trends, but often, as the old joke goes, 10 years late.
Barr embraced President Donald Trump, bringing the president and his son, Donald Trump Jr., to Kentucky to campaign for him amid a barrage of attack ads calling McGrath “too liberal for Kentucky.”
But Trump’s next two years promise to be much tougher than the last two, now that Democrats will control the U.S. House of Representatives. Just a hunch, but I don’t think Barr will be bringing Trumps to Kentucky in a couple of years.
The president is already historically unpopular outside his base, and that is unlikely to improve amid completion of the Robert Mueller probe, endless House committee investigations and an economy whose decade-long expansion is by the forces of nature likely headed for a slowdown, if not a slump.
At some point, more Kentuckians will realize that coal jobs aren’t coming back, trade tariffs hurt most Kentucky farmers and manufacturers, Republicans don’t care about their health care and budget-busting tax cuts aren’t helping them nearly as much as wealthy people and corporations. Long-term demographic trends also favor Democrats, both nationally and in Kentucky, as does the rise of women in politics.
But here’s the second big question: Can the Democratic Party nationally and in Kentucky get and keep its act together long enough to take advantage of all this?
Based on recent history, that won’t be easy. Democrats simply haven’t been able to sustain the passion, organization, outreach and messaging that Republicans have. Can they fix that?
Kentucky Democrats face big challenges: Despite gains in the state House of Representatives, Republicans still hold a majority there. They also control the Senate and the governor’s office.
The next big test is the 2019 governor’s race. Incumbent Matt Bevin is one of the nation’s least-popular governors, even among Republicans. Democrats should hope he sticks around to run for re-election, rather than taking a job in Washington.
Still, to beat Bevin, Democrats need a nominee who can create widespread excitement the way McGrath has. I don’t see one yet.
One good sign for Kentucky Democrats is young, dynamic party leadership. The state chair is Ben Self of Lexington, the West Sixth Brewery entrepreneur whose vision for using the Internet in politics helped elect Barack Obama president a decade ago. The vice chair is Cassie Chambers, a Harvard- and Yale-educated public interest lawyer in Louisville with humble Eastern Kentucky roots.
But to win, Democrats also need great candidates. They need more Amy McGraths.
Politics, like economics, moves in cycles. Smart political parties, like smart investors, build on momentum and diligently prepare to take advantage of opportunities. Will Kentucky Democrats persist?