Politics & Government

Hollywood vs. Wall Street? Campaigns jump to define McGrath and Barr in Kentucky.

Democrat Amy McGrath and Republican Andy Barr.
Democrat Amy McGrath and Republican Andy Barr.

November's election in Kentucky's Sixth Congressional District will be between a radical political newcomer supported by elite Hollywood liberals and a Wall Street-backed incumbent who puts the interest of wealthy Americans over everyday Kentuckians.

At least, that's what the campaigns would have you believe.

For the next five months, former fighter pilot Amy McGrath, U.S. Rep. Andy Barr and their surrogates will flood the airwaves of Central Kentucky as they attempt to paint the most unflattering pictures possible of each other.

McGrath, coasted to victory Tuesday over a popular two-term mayor of Lexington in the Democratic primary, in part by defining herself as the next generation of political leader and the type of person who will bring change to Washington. Meanwhile, Barr is a hardworking Republican who has increased his vote total in the district in every race since he was first elected in 2012.

The race has already attracted national attention, and is shaping up to be one of the most expensive congressional races in Kentucky history. The most expensive race, in 2004, cost the candidates and outside groups nearly $8 million. McGrath has already spent more than $1.7 million in the primary, and Barr heads into the general election with more than $2.3 million at his disposal.

Money is already a talking point. While 90 percent of McGrath's money in the primary came from small donors, including 4,000 Kentuckians, the Barr campaign has seized on the fact that 80 percent of her larger itemized donations came from outside Kentucky and 75 percent of her small donations came from people in other states.

"Their nominee needed her Hollywood and San Francisco friends to get her through the primary and now she wants to bring those liberal California values to Kentucky," Jodi Whitaker, Barr's communication director, said on election night.

But it's an argument to which Barr is also susceptible. McGrath and her Democratic surrogates quickly talked Wednesday about how much money Barr has raised from Wall Street donors while he's been a member of the House Financial Services Committee, which oversees the banking and financial industry.

Of the $2.4 million Barr has raised so far, more than $1 million has come from political action committees, including PACs for Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and other financial companies.

“He went to Washington and forgot where he came from,” McGrath said of Barr on primary night. “I never will. Instead, like so many in Congress today, he puts his political party and his big-dollar, special-interest donors first.”

Amy McGrath thanks supporters after her victory over Lexington Mayor Jim Gray in Kentucky's 6th Congressional District primary election.

Democrats fear McGrath's primary challenger, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, may have handed Republicans an opening by accusing McGrath of only recently being interested in the district.

Barr noted McGrath isn't from the 19 county district, which spans from the foothills of Appalachia to the rolling hills of Central Kentucky. McGrath grew up in Northern Kentucky before heading to the U.S. Naval Academy and joining the Marine Corps. She moved to Georgetown in July 2017 after retiring as a Lt. Col. in the Marines — a move that Republicans say reflects "district shopping."

Barr enters the election with the considerable advantage of incumbency.

In an interview with the Herald Leader on election night, he didn't refer to McGrath by name and instead chose to highlight his legislative agenda. He had just voted to approve a repeal of several regulations on banks from the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, a move he immediately heralded as relief to small banks and Democrats called a favor to Wall Street.

Yet his voting record also opens Barr to criticism from a candidate who has no voting record of her own to scrutinize. Her ads already highlight the fact that Barr voted to repeal the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

During her victory speech, McGrath slammed Barr by name, saying he is “enthusiastically trying to take health care and health insurance away from a quarter million Kentuckians. "

Barr and McGrath will also play tug of war with the public's perception of the Republican tax cut bill. Democrats say it will increase the deficit by $1.5 trillion, but Republicans who have assailed deficit spending insist it will pay for itself through an improved economy.

“When he ran for office, he said the debt was his No. 1 issue," McGrath said of Barr. "That's where his vulnerability is: you say one thing and you do another."

The Congressional Leadership Fund, which is backing Barr, spun McGrath's stance in the other direction, citing her "opposition to a $2,052 tax cut for hardworking families."

How the district's rural voters view those issues will be especially important. McGrath beat Gray by running up the vote totals in suburban and rural counties that surround Lexington, which has long been the Democratic stronghold in the district. She'll need to hang on to those voters in November if she hopes to win a district that Barr carried by 22 points in 2016 and President Donald Trump took by 16 points.

“Every county is vital in this campaign, not just the biggest counties or the most Democratic counties or the county where I live,” McGrath said. “If we’re going to win this campaign, we have to show that we will represent everyone.”

Barr and Republicans have already tried to portray McGrath as an "ultra-liberal," though she has taken pains to distance herself from the national Democratic Party, particularly its progressive wing.

Meanwhile, Barr will emphasize his roots, including the fact that he was born and raised in the district.

"As a sixth generation Lexingtonian who was born and raised in Central Kentucky, he shares the values of the people who live here, and he has a track record of solving problems and getting results," Whitaker said.

Amy McGrath thanks supporters after her victory over Jim Gray in Kentucky's 6th Congressional District primary election Tuesday.