After U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, launched his first attack ad of the 2018 congressional campaign, Democratic candidate Amy McGrath responded four days later with an ad of her own.
The retired Marine fighter pilot didn’t go after him on any specific issue. There was no narrator or grainy video. Instead, she looked at the camera and asked Barr a question.
“I want to say to Andy Barr — seriously, is that all you got?”
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In the six weeks since, Barr’s campaign released a new attack ad every Monday. They’ve talked about the places McGrath’s gone to raise money, then included footage of her telling donors that she’s more progressive than anyone who’s held the seat. They’ve gone after her opposition to the Republican tax bill, her pro-choice views on abortion and, now, her stance on health care.
And almost all of them end with the same message, delivered by a female narrator: “Amy McGrath, too liberal for Kentucky.”
It is considered conventional wisdom in politics that when one candidate goes negative, the other must respond in-kind, reminding people why they shouldn’t support the opponent.
McGrath, though, is not a conventional candidate.
As she was being outspent 2-to-1 on television by Barr and Republican groups backing him in recent weeks, McGrath outright rejected the counter-attack game. Instead, her last two ads have been about her mother and home videos of her kids.
“I think in politics we believe there are these rules that are carved in stone,” said Mark Nickolas, McGrath’s campaign manager. “And all of a sudden something washes over it and we see that it’s sand.”
Despite strong polling evidence that Barr has now erased an early lead McGrath held just after she won the Democratic primary in May, Nickolas said the campaign does not plan to air traditional attack ads against Barr.
“Certainly these things have an effect, or people wouldn’t do them,” Nickolas said. “I think that someone in the political world has to stand up and say enough is enough.”
That isn’t to say McGrath won’t go negative.
In her first ad, she highlighted a headline that said Barr enthusiastically voted for a plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. In her ad taunting Barr, she started by saying he consistently votes along party lines in Congress.
When asked about Barr’s attacks, McGrath continued that criticism.
“When your party controls all branches of government and the agenda, and all you do is attack your opponent, it says volumes about your ineffectiveness,” McGrath said. “The voters are sick and tired of politicians who campaign on empty promises and continually let them down.”
“That sounds like a counter-attack to me,” said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky. “It’s a different kind of counter attack.”
So far, Barr and McGrath are mostly fighting over McGrath’s image, Voss said.
She is trying to project an image she fostered during the Democratic primary as a political outsider who will rise above politics — a Democrat married to a Republican who will put her country before her political party.
Barr, borrowing a page from U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s political playbook, set out to quickly define McGrath as an out-of-touch liberal.
“We’re allowing the constituents of the Sixth Congressional District to hear my opponent in her own words,” Barr said. “And I think it is telling that she’s very defensive about an ad that features only her in her own words, when she’s speaking out of state.”
The attack’s purpose is two-fold: It motivates conservative Republicans in the district to vote on Election Day while giving pause to more conservative Democrats who might otherwise be drawn to a veteran who flew in 89 combat missions.
Barr’s message appears to be reaching many of those conservative Democrats in the district’s rural counties. James Sargent, chairman of the Democratic Party in Anderson County, said people have been asking him if McGrath is as liberal as the ads say.
“I reminded them that they take things out of context,” Sargent said. “From hearing and being around her, I don’t think she’s the most liberal in Kentucky.”
Sargent is a self-described “blue dog Democrat” and sees McGrath as the same. The Blue Dog Coalition is a congressional caucus made up of U.S. Representatives who identify as conservative Democrats.
Sargent, though, acknowledged, that it will take work to convince people that McGrath is not as liberal as she seems in Republican ads.
“We’ve just got to work a little harder to get our message out,” Sargent said.
Democratic groups that support McGrath might also help refocus the campaign on Barr’s record in Congress. So far, a Democratic Super PAC that supports veterans has aired one attack about Barr’s support of the Republican health care plan. More are expected to come throughout the campaign, but until that happens, Republicans say they’re happy with how Barr is steering the conversation.
“If they’re having a conversation about who fits the district better, then that has to be in Andy’s favor,” said Billy Piper, a former chief of staff for McConnell.