In July, after 20 years in the Marine Corps, Lt. Col. Amy McGrath packed up her things and moved back to Kentucky.
On Tuesday, less than a month after the move, her campaign released a video announcing that she will run for Congress as a Democrat in the Sixth Congressional District, which is represented by Republican Andy Barr of Lexington.
“This is my new mission,” McGrath, 42, said in the announcement video. “To take on a Congress full of career politicians who treat the people of Kentucky like they’re disposable.”
The video highlights McGrath’s military service — particularly the obstacles she overcame to become a fighter pilot — criticized Barr for supporting congressional efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, and highlighted her Kentucky roots.
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“I just feel strongly that we need better leaders,” McGrath said in an interview in June when asked why she was running. “We need more people who care less about their own political future or career, and we need more people who have been public servants in other ways to run for office.”
McGrath joins state Sen. Reggie Thomas, D-Lexington, and perennial Democratic candidate Geoff Young in the race.
Several other Democrats have expressed interest, including Colmon Elridge, who was on the staff of former Gov. Steve Beshear, and Leslie Combs, a former state representative from Pikeville. Lexington Mayor Jim Gray has kept silent on whether he plans to enter the race.
McGrath said she looks forward to a Democratic primary for the seat that represents Lexington and most of Central Kentucky.
“I need it personally from an experience standpoint,” she said. “I need that. And when you have a primary, people get invested in voting. They get back into the system, they start to meet the candidates, they start to understand the issues, and I think this is good. When we don’t have contested primaries, we end up with candidates that are maybe lukewarm to the voters.”
Like Thomas, McGrath went after Barr on health care, particularly his steadfast support of a bill that could have left thousands of Kentuckians without insurance while cutting the federal government’s Medicaid expenses.
In June, McGrath criticized Barr’s enthusiastic support for the Financial CHOICE Act, a bill that unravels the Dodd-Frank law, which was put into place after the recession that began in 2008. McGrath said the bill loosens regulations on payday lenders, and it would hurt military families by putting them in a cycle of debt.
“It’s not just about military families. They’re preying on anyone who is low-income, low-wage workers who need to make ends meet,” she said. “We shouldn’t have this. We should have some consumer protections to stem some of this stuff.”
Rick VanMeter, Barr’s spokesman, didn’t respond to McGrath’s criticism, instead issuing the same statement he issued when Thomas announced his campaign.
“Congressman Barr is not focused on the Democrats’ intra-party fight, especially a year before the 2018 primary election,” VanMeter said. “Instead, he is focused on fighting for the values and interests of the people of the Sixth District in Congress, keeping his promises and doing the job he was elected to do. There will be a time in the future for politics, but now is the time to do the work of the American people.”
In a pack filled with names familiar to those in Central Kentucky, one of the largest hurdles for McGrath in the primary and, if she wins, the general election, will be that she hasn’t lived in the state since Bill Clinton was president.
“I want to welcome Lt. Col. McGrath to the area,” Thomas said, taking a jab at her outsider status. “I think she will find, as I have, that people will be warm and welcoming. I think primaries are good for the process, and I look forward to a full debate on the issues of importance to the people of Kentucky’s Sixth Congressional District and America.”
McGrath, who just finished teaching at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., defends herself against “carpetbagger” claims by citing her Kentucky roots and that she left to serve in the military. She now lives in Georgetown, about 45 minutes from her parents.
“I would have loved to have been able to live in this district the last 20 years,” McGrath said. “I would have loved to have been able to go to all the UK games and all the Kentucky Derbies. I was off doing what I needed to do. I spent a year of my life living in a tent in the Middle East.”
Still, without established roots in the state, McGrath will face a difficult challenge when it comes to one of the most important aspects of a campaign — fundraising.
At the end of June, her exploratory committee reported $35,593 in donations, much of which came from out-of-state donors. Barr has more than $1 million in his war chest. Thomas has not had to file a report on how much he raised.
“I’m not a normal face around here, I don’t know all of the politicos in this area, even where I’m from. I don’t know the politicos,” McGrath said. “I’m very much an outsider, and I think that’s probably the biggest challenge. On the other hand, I also think that it’s an opportunity. I also think that there’s a large percentage of voters that are kind of tired of business as usual.”