Editor's Note: This is the second of three profiles of leading candidates in the Democratic primary to represent Central Kentucky's 6th Congressional District.
Last July, Amy McGrath stood in a hall at the United States Naval Academy, a replica of a 1911 airplane hanging from the ceiling, as she retired from the Marine Corps. A little more than a month later, she’d be in front of planes at a Kentucky airport, wearing her leather bomber jacket as she introduced herself as a Democratic candidate in the 6th Congressional District.
The video, and her story, caught hold. She is among a batch of political newcomers running for Congress in the era of President Donald Trump, baptized into the national political scene with interviews on CNN and MSNBC.
McGrath wasn’t only a newcomer to politics, she also was a newcomer to Central Kentucky. She grew up in Northern Kentucky before heading to the Naval Academy in 1993 and didn't move back to Kentucky until retiring from the Marine Corps in 2017.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
She’s toured the country as she’s toured the Central Kentucky district, gathering checks from George Clooney, who has Kentucky roots, and from Silicon Valley investors and New York professors.
It’s mostly out of necessity. As a first-time candidate, McGrath didn’t have a local network to lean on for campaign cash and needed money to boost her name recognition in the district.
It appears to be working. A race that originally favored Lexington Mayor Jim Gray is now considered extremely competitive.
But there’s risk involved in attracting a national audience to a Kentucky campaign. Time and again, Kentucky Republicans have effectively tied their Democratic opponents to liberal leaders of the national Democratic Party, including when U.S. Rep. Andy Barr unseated Ben Chandler in 2012.
McGrath has done her best to avoid the appearance of being a member of the Democratic establishment. She’s pitched herself as an outsider, the next generation of leader who will serve all 19 counties in the district and not just Lexington.
That approach, though, leaves an open question: If she wins the Democratic primary, has McGrath made it easy for Barr to paint her as an East Coast liberal as she wages a national campaign to boost her name recognition?
Barr has already alluded to McGrath's national fund-raising network in emails and has tweeted about her support from celebrities, such as Rosie O’Donnell and Chelsea Handler.
Mark Nickolas, McGrath’s campaign manager, thinks people will see through the GOP's message.
“I think it’s going to be incredibly hard in the general election to paint Amy McGrath as a puppet of the party,” he said.
The daughter of a physician and high school English teacher, Amy McGrath grew up in Edgewood, about an hour from her new home in Georgetown.
“My mother was the physician and my dad was the teacher and that's how I grew up,” McGrath said. “And I thought that was the norm. And it wasn't until I got a little bit older where I kind of looked around like woah, this is a little different than most families.”
That norm, combined with her ability to beat up the boys in sports (“I was really effen good,” she said), helped McGrath push back against the gender roles of the 1980s. At 12, she wrote to members of Congress asking them to allow women to fly in combat. The responses, mostly patronizing “sorrys,” now hang from the wall at her campaign headquarters.
In a televised debate between the three major candidates in the Democratic primary, McGrath got a question she’s heard many times. This time, it came from state Sen. Reggie Thomas, of Lexington.
“You’ve positioned yourself as being a non-Lexington running for office, that you represent the people outside of Lexington,” Thomas said. “So I want to list three well-known communities in this district that you’ve had time to visit: Bybee, Clay City and Sharpsburg. And tell me Amy, the counties where those communities are located.”
“I don’t know Reggie, I haven’t been everywhere,” McGrath replied. “And I’m not sure everybody who’s lived here, think about the folks in this audience who’ve lived here for 20 years, have you been to all of those places? Look, the fact is that I served my country, okay. I can’t do both. I can’t live here for 20 years and also be a United States Marine, serving the people of Kentucky.”
That service began when she was 18, the same year Congress rescinded the combat exclusion policy for women in aviation positions.
“It was a huge time of change for the military,” McGrath said. “I remember Peter Jennings getting on ABC News saying the military is going to open up combat positions to women.”
The combat part of McGrath’s career has been highlighted throughout her campaign. She was the first female in the Marine Corps to fly into combat in an F-18. She served three tours of duty abroad, was prepared to shoot down any planes on 9/11 and rose through the ranks.
Through it all, she had the challenge of being a trailblazer. Sometimes it was big things, like switching from being a “back seater” (the person who drops the bombs) to a “front seater” (the person who flies the planes). Sometimes, the battles were smaller.
Tim Andress, who was in the same fighter squadron with McGrath in the Marine Corps, tells a story about a time when he and McGrath were serving in Egypt. A group of guys were organizing a soccer game and told her, a former Division I college soccer player, she wasn’t allowed to play.
“I remember Amy being floored because they told her she couldn’t play,” Andress said. “I don’t remember what she did, but she got in.”
For most of her adult life, McGrath has lived in or near the Washington D.C. area.
Annapolis, the first place she moved after leaving Kentucky and the last place she served before moving back, is 34 miles from the United States Capitol. Upon returning from her third combat deployment in Afghanistan in 2010, McGrath received a fellowship to serve as an adviser in that building.
She was assigned to Rep. Susan Davis, D-California, who served on the House Committee for Armed Services, and advised Davis on several issues, including military sequestration, sexual assault in the military and implementation of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal.
“She had a wealth of sensitivity,” Davis said. “She’s just a determined and driven person.”
McGrath brought her military experience to members of the committee and saw it as her responsibility to provide a basic understanding of how the military works. McGrath says there are too few veterans in Congress and that, often, members of Congress want to see the war as good guys versus bad guys.
“Many people think that there's a simple answer, and I had just come from a region where I would explain to members of Congress that in Afghanistan, there's no good guys and there's no bad guys, it's all gray,” McGrath said. “People are going to be with you if it’s going to be good for their families and they're gonna survive. Everybody in Afghanistan is a survivor.”
A year later, she headed across the Potomac River to the Pentagon, where she worked to coordinate between the Marine Corps and other agencies as they tried to figure out how to best combat terrorist organizations.
The project resulted in a written plan: The United States Marine Corps Interagency Integration Strategy. It was the first of its kind, according to Rebecca DeGuzman who worked with McGrath at the Pentagon, and is still in use.
“She’s an incredibly quick learner and in that time she really gained a lot of federal and international experience,” said DeGuzman, a former Interagency Analyst with Professional Solutions LLC in Washington D.C.
At night, she worked toward her Master’s degree in international security at Johns Hopkins University, while pregnant with her first of three children.
McGrath touts her experience in Washington D.C. as an asset, even as Gray and Thomas tout their work on local and state issues that have a more visible direct impact on Central Kentucky voters.
“I bring an enormous amount of experience in defense and foreign policy,” McGrath said. “I bring experience at the federal level in ways that neither Reggie nor Jim have.”
That experience, though, exposes a hole in her resume.
“She can’t talk with any specificity or expertise on local issues because she doesn’t know,” said Tres Watson, communications director for the Republican Party of Kentucky.
U.S. Rep. Susan Davis has had many people approach her about running for Congress during her 15 years in the Capitol. When she got that call from Amy McGrath, her former military adviser, she did what she normally does and tried to paint a realistic picture.
“I tried to discourage her, in many ways,” Davis said. “Amy is such a solid individual and I worried about the rigor of having to fundraise, that it would be kind of overwhelming.”
McGrath was undeterred, and fund-raising hasn't been a problem so far.
National media outlets couldn't resist her unique background. She’s a woman in the era of #metoo. She’s a military veteran who broke barriers. She’s a political newcomer motivated by the election of Donald Trump.
McGrath has collected thousands of checks from all over the country, including large amounts from Democratic hotbeds in California and New York. On her Facebook page, people from Pennsylvania and Colorado and California lament that they can't vote for her.
“The reason for that was very simple,” Nickolas said. “The establishment here had frozen all the money.”
McGrath leaned into the outsider persona. Her campaign paints a picture of a divided Democratic Party, a rift between the old guard and the new guard symbolized by the divide between U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts congressman who has pumped cash to military veteran candidates, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California.
The McGrath campaign has emphasized that national Democrats recruited Gray to the race.
“There are a lot of CEOs in Congress, there are a lot of older businessmen,” McGrath said. “There are a lot of rich guys in Congress. There's not a whole lot of veterans, there's not a whole lot of women, not a whole lot of moms. So our life experience also sets us apart. But it's also the change agent.”
Gray is 64, wealthy and was a supporter of Kentucky Democrats long before he was elected mayor. But he was also the first openly gay mayor of Lexington and has said he will not vote for Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House if he is elected and Democrats win control in November.
McGrath is 42 and new to Kentucky politics, but she was encouraged to run by Gray’s friend, former U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler. And the guy making her advertisements is one of the most coveted Democratic ad men in the country.
McGrath, who often talks about the barriers she faced as a woman, shrugged it off when it was noted that Gray is gay and Thomas is black.
"But I think it's just a different experience,” McGrath said. “We all bring something to the table. He (Gray) brings big city mayor. He brings business.”
Insider or outsider, Kentucky Republicans are ready to tie whoever comes out of the primary to the national Democratic Party.
They’ve already started.
Kentucky voters "know what putting a Democrat in power means,” Watson said.