Politics & Government

Amy McGrath has told you she was a fighter pilot. These veterans aren’t impressed.

Amy McGrath’s ads have featured her prior military service and the hurdles she overcame to be a fighter pilot.
Amy McGrath’s ads have featured her prior military service and the hurdles she overcame to be a fighter pilot. Amy McGrath

The Kentucky Aviation Museum is a familiar place for those who have followed the election in Kentucky’s Sixth Congressional District.

It’s where Democratic candidate Amy McGrath, a former Marine Corps fighter pilot, was inducted into the Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame two years ago. It’s near where she filmed campaign ads that drew national attention last year. And it’s where a group of veterans who support U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, a Republican, rallied for more than two hours Wednesday night to say she shouldn’t be elected in November.

“McGrath’s commercials accuse Andy Barr of being scared,” said Travis Cassidy, a retired Marine Corps sergeant. “I am here to tell you Andy Barr has no reason to be scared. U.S. Marines know war is won on the ground, not by the air.”

McGrath, a retired lieutenant colonel, has made her military service the bedrock of her candidacy. She calls her campaign her 90th combat mission and has featured fighter jets in each of her ads. In her stump speech, she often talks about how her experience in the military will help her cross party lines to fix the nation’s problems.

Her military talk hadn’t won over the crowd of more than 300 people that attended Barr’s rally.

There were “Make America Great Again” hats and “Keep America Great” hats. There were leather vests and flags and plenty of oorahs, hooyahs and hooahs. And there was plenty of talk about Barr’s record on military issues.

Speakers touted the Lexington lawyer’s creation of a veterans coalition in Central Kentucky that now boasts more than 1,000 members; his efforts to help constituents get access to veterans services; and his legislative accomplishments, such as his Military SAVE Act to help prevent sexual assault in the military. The bill passed the House but hasn’t gotten a vote in the Senate.

Veterans For Barr
About 325 people attended Andy Barr’s Veterans for Barr rally at the Kentucky Aviation Museum, Wednesday, August 29, 2018. Daniel Desrochers

Mostly, the event served as a way to diminish the importance of McGrath’s military experience, her largest strength as a candidate.

“While we respect everyone who has served our country in uniform, everyone,” Barr said, “we realize that part of respecting them is to not patronize them. And we will not patronize bad ideas. We will not do that.”

Speaking from the podium at Barr’s political rally, several veterans criticized the fact that McGrath has used her military service to promote her political agenda.

“I will never use my service to get a vote,” said Matthew Bradford, a Barr staffer who lost both legs and his vision serving in Iraq.

Others tried to undermine McGrath’s military record.

“People who have actually done something in the military aren’t standing up and talking about it,” said former U.S. Rep. Geoff Davis of Northern Kentucky. The retired Army captain prominently touted his service record during his own campaigns for Congress.

McGrath was the first female Marine to fly into combat in an F-18, a distinction that comes with many qualifiers that have led to the common misconception that she was the first female to fly into combat. Her first deployment in Afghanistan was in 2002, as a back-seater in the F-18. Then she went to Iraq in 2003 and, after retraining to be a pilot, did another deployment in Afghanistan in 2010.

“The fact that Andy would allow anyone to come forward in his name and suggest that her service was anything less than honorable is appalling,” said Marisa McNee, deputy executive director of the Kentucky Democratic Party. “That they would do it at an event organized at the very place where Lt. Col. McGrath was inducted into the Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame less than two years ago is disgraceful.”

Congressman Andy Barr is welcomed onto the stage at the Republican Party of Kentucky’s Lincoln Dinner at the Hilton Downtown in Lexington, Ky., Aug 25, 2018. He was followed by White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Marcus Dorsey mdorsey@herald-leader.com

Barr has never served in the military and drew criticism earlier this month when he compared his legislative service to McGrath’s military service in a New York Times story. Marine veteran J.B. Reynolds took credit for Barr’s gaffe on Wednesday, saying he was the first to make the comparison and that anyone who didn’t see the similarities in service has their “head in the sand.”

“I will not, under any circumstances, let somebody use my Marine Corps against this man,” said the retired sergeant.

Barr has launched an aggressive campaign against McGrath, acknowledging that it’s one of the races that could help determine which party wins control of the U.S. House of Representatives this November. As Barr attacks, McGrath has largely declined to punch back, choosing instead to criticize Barr for running a negative campaign.

“Paraphrasing John McCain, one of Amy’s true heroes who was lying in state in Arizona at the same time, she will not take the low road to one of the highest offices in our land,” said Mark Nickolas, McGrath’s campaign manager. “She wants to win this seat in the best way, not the worst way. Apparently, Congressman Barr prefers the scorched-earth method.”

Kentucky Democratic congressional candidate Amy McGrath's latest television ad responds to an attack ad by U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, that labels her a liberal feminist. "Seriously, is that all you got," McGrath asks in the ad.