It’s no coincidence President Donald Trump is speaking Saturday night in Richmond.
Madison County is the swing county in Kentucky’s only competitive congressional district, which could help determine which party controls Congress next year. Since 1990, Madison County has voted with the eventual winner of the Sixth Congressional District in every race but one — when then-challenger Andy Barr narrowly lost to then-Rep. Ben Chandler in 2010.
That’s why, as Democrats try to prove they can still win in increasingly-conservative Kentucky, their chances hinge on how well Amy McGrath can perform in this county of 87,824 people, which holds 11 percent of the 19-county district’s population.
“Madison County just has outsized significance,” said Mark Nickolas, McGrath’s campaign manager. “It’s kind of like the Pennsylvania or Ohio of the Sixth Congressional District.”
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In many ways, the entire district is reflected in Madison County, with its mixture of rural communities and urban areas, which are anchored by a university and college.
“It’s far enough out of Lexington that it’s not reflexively liberal,” said Billy Piper, a Republican political operative who served as Alice Forgy Kerr’s congressional campaign manager in 2004. “It’s urban enough that it’s not bright red.”
For years, the county has largely sent Democrats to Frankfort while sending Republicans to Washington. But, just like elsewhere in the state, Democrats have been losing ground in Madison County.
Andy Barr has never lost the county in his four campaigns for Congress, watching his victory margin grow from 4 percentage points in 2010 to 36 points in 2016.
“We get the challenges Madison County presents for us, but we are going to continue to spend an enormous amount of time there,” Nickolas said.
From golf scrambles to political rallies, both Barr and McGrath have made Madison County a second home in recent months.
McGrath’s campaign celebrated their primary victory in Richmond on election night, and they’ll be watching vote returns come in from there again on Nov. 6.
“It wasn’t a coincidence where we spent primary night,” Nickolas said.
Despite the fact that Barr is bringing Trump to Richmond Saturday, he said every county is equally important in his effort to win the district.
“We don’t take for granted any county or any particular location,” Barr said recently at an event in Mt. Sterling. “I represent everybody in this Sixth Congressional District, whether they’re Democrat or Republican, whether they live in Fayette County or Madison County, to me they’re all important.”
Still, Barr’s path to re-election requires a big win in Madison County, which is trending conservative.
The county has seen a 175 percent increase in registered Republicans since 1996, more than double the statewide increase of 88 percent and more than triple the 46 percent increase in registered Democrats in Madison County.
In 1996, 30.3 percent of registered voters in Madison County were Republicans. Now that number is 43.6 percent.
“It clearly has conservative values and it’s trending more and more conservative,” said Darrell Brock, the former chairman of the Republican Party, who moved to Madison County in 2004.
Rita Smart, a former Democratic state representative from Madison County, said migration to the northern part of the county, as people have moved out of Fayette County, and migration to the southern part of the county, as people have moved up from the more conservative southern parts of the state, have been the driving factor behind increasing conservatism in the county.
The question is can McGrath turn back that conservative tide?
Democrats learned long ago that winning the liberal-leaning Fayette County isn’t enough to claim victory in the Sixth Congressional District (and in 2014 and 2016, Democrats weren’t even able to accomplish that).
So McGrath went to work in Madison County early, setting up her field offices in Richmond in March. Smart said she’s been impressed with the crowds she’s seen in the office, but that isn’t always a reliable indicator of what will happen on Election Day.
“I think this will be one race that will help us understand if what Democrats want is better candidates or if this is just going to be a Republican state going forward,” Nickolas said.