People have been telling Amy McGrath “no” for a long time.
No, you cannot compete against the boys in sports. No, you cannot serve in combat or fly fighter jets. And no, you certainly cannot defeat the popular mayor of the largest city in your congressional district as a first-time candidate.
A wall of trophies, a degree from the Naval Academy, 89 combat flight missions and one stunning House Democratic primary victory later, McGrath is growing more used to the sound of “yes,” even as she moves to turn around the toughest “no’s” yet, Republican voters in the suddenly bellwether 6th Congressional District of Kentucky.
On Tuesday, she easily defeated Jim Gray, the well-liked mayor of Lexington, for the Democratic nomination in the 6th District. Republicans moved immediately to define her as the far-left candidate who triumphed despite a rejection by the Democratic establishment. But Democrats united around her just as quickly, turning the fight this summer and fall for Kentucky’s 6th District into a critical test of the Democrats’ vaunted “blue wave.”
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The story of how McGrath became an avatar for that wave is a narrative that combined a compelling biography, risk taking, the virtues of the digital age and the willingness to compete even when party elders in Washington were trying to stop her. She slogged through a grueling climb in the polls, suffered a personal tragedy just last month, then fended off a late and unexpected negative attack — all for the chance to compete against an incumbent Republican, Rep. Andy Barr, who won his last re-election race by 22 percentage points.
“I have never heard someone so persistent,” said Mark Putnam, her campaign’s ad-maker.
Her journey from a career in the Marine Corps to a candidate began with the election of President Donald Trump, who she said represented the opposite of the ideals she was taught at the Naval Academy. She contacted the last Democrat to hold the seat, Ben Chandler, who was swept from power in 2012, poured out her grief and asked about running for Congress.
Chandler recommended his former campaign manager, Mark Nickolas, who had given up politics nearly a decade before and turned to filmmaking in New York. McGrath proved persuasive, and Nickolas signed up, then signed on Putnam, known for his unusual creativity.
Drawn to McGrath’s life story, Putnam needed a runway, a fighter plane and McGrath’s misplaced bomber jacket. They found the first two in Lexington and the jacket somewhere in her house in Georgetown, Kentucky, in a box, still unpacked, from last year’s move from Virginia.
Putnam asked McGrath to repeat the lines of his script, while wearing that bomber jacket in 94-degree heat, until he heard just the right inflection, had the ideal lighting and was convinced there was enough material for both the longer online video to launch the campaign and for a shorter ad later.
The video cost more than $33,000 to produce. Her campaign started $7,000 in the red.
“I thought, what have I done?” Nickolas said. “Should I not have come back into politics? We gambled everything on this video.”
Campaign aides posted the video on Aug. 1, 2017. Within 72 hours, they had raised $300,000. The political action committee affiliated with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., sent a $5,000 check. Nickolas was getting calls for national television interviews, and his candidate had never done one.
Her debut on CNN was rocky, but she quickly got better. So did the contributions, ultimately bringing in more than $1 million.
“It told me there was a hunger out there for something,” Nickolas said.
McGrath soon was fielding calls and texts from Tina Brown, Chelsea Handler, Samantha Bee and multiple broadcast and cable outlets. Nickolas worried that she would be seen as a national figure when he needed her to be a local one.
In Washington, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee officials were well aware of her burst of fame and campaign money. But they were taking a sober, pragmatic view of the race, siding with Gray, whose name identification and popularity in the district, combined with his personal wealth, seemed to make him the more viable opponent to take on Barr.
In early December 2017, Gray announced his candidacy, and the electric ride for McGrath came to a thundering halt. A survey by her pollster, Fred Yang, showed Gray leading her by 47 points.
“I thought, if Amy lost this race by 20 points it would be a good race for her,” Yang said.
Nickolas, who had never worked in a campaign in the digital era, saw the Washington rebuke as an opportunity to run the campaign his way, without having to hew to the DCCC playbook. That meant buying ad space in small town newspapers for opinion pieces by McGrath, buying billboard space, and building a field operation in rural areas.
Nickolas wanted voters to see McGrath as he saw her, “the combination of normal, even awkward, with powerful, that makes her authentic and accessible and blends the young mother with three kids and the Marine lieutenant colonel.”
But all those tactics cost money. Nickolas told McGrath she would need to raise $2.2 million, a goal she met — and a measure of her popularity.
Still, for much of the race, the DCCC seemed to have made the right calculation. In March, a survey for Gray, which his campaign released in April, showed he was up by 25 points with a little more than a month left in the race.
It was sobering — but also emboldening: At least the trend was going McGrath’s way. She was campaigning aggressively in rural areas, and followed through on her plan to stay positive. Nickolas continued his quirky tactical moves, which included making yard signs for individual counties.
McGrath wrote a 32-page economic plan to mail to 47,000 Democratic households, printed on expensive paper with glossy photos. It also included a bumper sticker and a pledge card. Nickolas’ rationale was that voters get a lot of one-page junk mail. This package would stand out.
Her campaign took another major gamble, a $50,000, 60-second version of her viral video, which ran during the first half of the University of Kentucky’s game in the NCAA basketball Tournament in March. “That sounds badass,” McGrath told Nickolas.
Then on April 9, Donald McGrath, the candidate’s 76-year-old father whom she called her “biggest fan,” died unexpectedly. McGrath was devastated.
Both her parents had shaped her. Her mother, Marianne, had polio as a child, and never regained full use of her legs. Determined to be a doctor in an era when women physicians were not common, she became one of the first women to graduate from the University of Kentucky Medical School, and practiced as a pediatrician until the post-polio symptoms made it too difficult to stand. She then went back to do a second residency in psychiatry — at night.
Her father, a high school teacher for 40 years, had also always encouraged his daughter to break barriers.
She stopped all campaigning for a week as she tried to regroup for a final push.
“The campaign was important,” she said. “My family was more important.”
As she mourned, her fortunes were shifting. At 6:45 a.m., on April 18, after the second night of a three-night poll, Yang texted Nickolas. “I hate it when you are right and I am wrong,” Nickolas said the pollster told him, adding, “tomorrow morning Amy is most likely going to lead.”
The campaign manager had privately hoped she would only be down by about 8 points. She was leading by 7.
The poll also showed something the men had never seen. Both candidates were viewed by voters in highly favorable terms. Among those voters who had a very favorable view of both, McGrath led by 16 points.
“This is not about Gray,” Nickolas said. “This is about something different. Voters wanted something different.”
McGrath then aired a second ad produced by Putnam, an image reboot that showed her taking her three children to a doctor’s appointment. Her middle child, George, 3, goofs with the doctor when she tries to give him a shot, then runs down the hallway with his pants around his ankles. McGrath called the ad her “toughest mission,” then asked if any of her opponents could deal with that.
Gray countered last Friday with an ad that in effect tried to paint McGrath as a carpetbagger for moving back to recently solely to run for Congress.
The day before the election, McGrath made the rounds of restaurants in her hometown, Georgetown, just outside Lexington, going booth to booth asking for votes. Men and women asked to take selfies with her.
In the afternoon, she blocked out several hours to attend the kindergarten graduation of her oldest child, Teddy, 5. Later she returned to her campaign headquarters in Lexington to thank her staff and implore them to make a final push for votes.
On Election Day, she and her husband, Erik Henderson, performed their chaotic ritual of getting three young children fed, a train of cereal, yogurt, bagels and drinks, then off to school, before heading to their polling place.
It was her first-ever vote in person. In the military she had always used absentee ballots.
When it was Erik’s turn, the election judge said, “Machine, Republican,” and her husband cast his ballots for Republican candidates under Kentucky’s closed primary system. The retired Navy lieutenant commander had been a Republican since he was 18, he said, declining to address the awkwardness of not voting for his wife.
His affiliation could prove to be a strategic advantage as McGrath now appeals for Republican votes in a county that Trump won by double digits.
McGrath awaited results with her husband, her mother and her top campaign staff in a small hotel suite here. She went for a run to burn off some nervousness. Nickolas hovered over his computer.
At 7:46 p.m., Gray called to concede the race.
When Barr appeared on television for an interview, McGrath stared at the screen and said “bring it.”
As her campaign staff celebrated into the night, McGrath and her husband drove an hour north to their home.
“I want to be there when my kids wake up,” she said.
By Wednesday, McGrath was clearly no longer the outsider. She had calls or messages from the two top Democrats in the House, Reps. Nancy Pelosi of California and Steny Hoyer of Maryland; from Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts; and from a staff member of former Vice President Joe Biden.
Rep. Ben Ray Luján, chairman of the DCCC, invited her to join Red to Blue, the campaign committee’s list of the most targeted races to reclaim the House.