Mark Nickolas was done with politics.
The onetime Kentucky political blogger had moved to New York City, had learned to make documentary films in graduate school, and was building toward a future that wouldn’t involve life in the trenches of a political campaign.
“I hate the political system,” Nickolas said last week at his Woodford County farm. “I hate it. I hate it. It is awful and it is corrosive and it is dysfunctional.”
Then Donald Trump won the presidential election.
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Now, 10 years after his blog, BluegrassReport.org, hit its peak, and 13 years after he managed Ben Chandler’s first winning congressional bid, the firebrand Democratic strategist is back in Kentucky; this time with an outsider candidate, retired Lt. Col. Amy McGrath, who he thinks can take down U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington.
“Some people can write a check, some people will go demonstrate, some people will organize,” Nickolas said. “The one thing I know how to do is manage.”
In the opening act of his return as a campaign manager in Kentucky, Nickolas must prove that his political instincts haven’t faded as he guides a political newcomer in a state and a 6th Congressional District that is vastly more conservative than when he left.
“Whether or not she runs remains to be seen,” Nickolas said. “But I will say on the record that I fully expect it, and I am ready to run her campaign.”
A divisive past
Nickolas gained notoriety in Kentucky through his political blog, but when he came to the state in 2003, it was simply a way to escape the winters of South Dakota.
He managed state Rep. Jody Richards’ gubernatorial campaign in the Democratic primary, then Ben Chandler’s gubernatorial campaign against Ernie Fletcher in the general election. Despite losing both, Nickolas got a third chance, running Chandler’s campaign to fill Fletcher’s vacant seat in the 6th Congressional District.
“He was one of those guys who really thought outside the box and really came up with some ideas,” Chandler said.
With a big race looming, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell unloaded his staff in Washington, sending Billy Piper, his chief of staff at the time, to manage the campaign of the Republican candidate, state Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr.
“I think by that point Mark Nickolas had kind of gotten a better sense of Central Kentucky voters,” said Ryan Alessi, a former political reporter with the Herald-Leader. “Particularly he was using the data; he had a good relationship with the pollster, and that was the tightest campaign I saw Mark Nickolas and Ben Chandler run.”
After Chandler won, Nickolas used the connections he made as a strategist to launch what would become a must-read political blog in the state: BluegrassReport.org. Unafraid to use anonymous sources, Nickolas attempted to give Kentuckians behind-the-scenes insight into the world of Kentucky politics.
“His scoops were correct more often than they were not,” Alessi said. “He was so well sourced, and I think he’s savvy enough to highlight some of the things that would get traction, and he knew what to put out there and what just might be static or junk.”
His blog also punched — hard. Although a frequent critic of the Republican Party, especially the administration of Fletcher, Nickolas didn’t back away from taking on the what he called the Democratic Party’s “good old boys.”
“I didn’t go after them just to go after them,” Nickolas said. “I went after people who I felt like needed a light shined on them. It was never about anything other than that.”
The approach didn’t sit well with some members of his own party.
“I don’t recognize him as part of the Democratic Party,” Jerry Lundergan, the Democratic Party chairman at the time, said in 2006. “He is not one of us.”
Even Richards, the man responsible for bringing Nickolas to Kentucky, had harsh words for Nickolas.
“He is a liberal from California who has only been in Kentucky a short time and hadn’t spent much time around the legislature,” Richards said after Nickolas criticized party leadership in 2005.
The blog hit its peak during the Fletcher administration, about 2006. After Nickolas insulted Fletcher in a story on the front page of The New York Times, state employees were blocked from reading blogs on state-owned computers. Nickolas sued, calling the ban a violation of the first amendment.
By 2007, as the lawsuit was pending, Nickolas was ready to call it quits. His girlfriend at the time wanted to move to Montana, and raising money to keep his blog afloat was a heavy burden.
“I am at war with the governor,” Nickolas said describing the environment when he decided to move. “I am at war with the Democratic Party chairman.”
So he left. In Montana, he briefly revived the blog and tried to find someone else to take over, but by 2009, it was defunct.
It isn’t lost on Nickolas that he now expects to manage a candidate who is going up against a former member of the Fletcher administration, in some ways reigniting the central feud of his time in Kentucky, but it isn’t his focus.
“It didn’t matter that this is Andy Barr,” Nickolas said. “We need 23 seats to take back the House. The House is going to be the check on Trump, and this could be one of the 23 seats. There is no way I’m doing this with a candidate I am not certain could win.”
A new start
As Nickolas and his girlfriend, Jean Ferreri, drove through Woodford County in April 2016, looking at farms for sale, Nickolas was adamant that he would not get back into politics if he moved back to Kentucky.
He had established a new life, earning a master’s degree in film and media studies from the New School in New York City, and he had been traveling to more film festivals than political fish fries.
“I just want to be a filmmaker and have a farm and go see my friends, and I’m done with it,” Nickolas said. “I’m not getting back into this world.”
But shortly after the election, he got a call from Chandler, his former boss. McGrath had emailed Chandler, the only Kentucky politico she knew, asking for advice about running for office.
Chandler, whose current position as president and CEO of the Foundation for Healthy Kentucky doesn’t allow him to get involved in political campaigns, asked Nickolas to give McGrath some advice.
At first, he was simply advising McGrath about the political nuances of Central Kentucky, doing a favor for Chandler. But as time wore on and as Nickolas started connecting McGrath with his old Kentucky colleagues, he was drawn to the campaign.
“I think what the Democrats of this district want is a Democrat that they can support,” Nickolas said. “And I’m talking about outside of Fayette County. Somebody who is not tainted by the system, who is not part of the narrative that they’ve no longer been interested in listening to.”
Nickolas is effusive in his praise of McGrath, as any campaign manager should be, but others see a difficult path to victory. For one thing, she is a relative unknown in Kentucky’s Democratic political circles.
McGrath has bought a house and is moving to Scott County, but she has spent about 20 years out of the state, serving in the Marines and teaching at the U.S. Naval Academy. Fundraising will be a challenge, especially if Lexington Mayor Jim Gray were to enter the race.
“It’s about the money,” Nickolas said. “You’ve got to be able to raise the money. And it is sad and it is awful that it’s the case, but these races are expensive.”
A spokesman for Barr didn’t respond to a request for comment, but Piper, McConnnell’s former chief of staff, said Nickolas faces a big challenge.
“I think it’s a tall order that even he can’t do, to get a carpetbagger elected in that district,” Piper said. “Andy’s got, I think, a really solid foundation there, and his family goes back generations in Lexington and in the district.”
A different district
A lot has changed since Chandler won office in 2004, and even more has changed since 2012, when Chandler lost to Barr.
While Nickolas was away, the Republican march toward political dominance in the state has gained momentum.
“I don’t think it’s a whole lot different than the country as a whole, and we’ve seen a very quick, remarkable shift to a urban/rural divide,” Chandler said.
Trump won the 6th Congressional District by more than 15 points last year. The Trump presidency has awoken liberal activists in Fayette County, but it’s unclear how much of that progressive energy extends to the other 17 counties in the district.
“I think it’s gotten more conservative,” Piper said when asked how the district has changed since he battled with Nickolas. “To me, Madison County has always been kind of the key to that district, and it’s gotten more reliably Republican over the last several years, and I think Andy deserves a lot of credit for that because he’s worked it.”
Nickolas, though, has his eye on Madison County and all of the rural counties in the district. He said he thinks voters there have felt overshadowed by Fayette County in recent years.
“I think the 18 counties in the 6th are tired of Lexington getting everything,” Nickolas said.
He admits that registered Republicans in the district are growing at a faster clip than registered Democrats, but he is heartened that most Democrats aren’t switching their party registration.
“You just have to give them something different,” Nickolas said. “You cannot feed them the same candidate and expect them to say OK.”