All the attention in one of the most tightly-contested congressional races in the country focused Friday on a county that contains only 1.6 percent of the voters in Kentucky’s Sixth Congressional District.
Democratic nominee Amy McGrath welcomed former Vice President Joe Biden to the Bath County High School auditorium for a lunchtime fish fry, driving home her campaign’s attempt to reach rural voters on the edge of Appalachian Kentucky who have drifted from their Democratic roots to the Republican Party.
Preceded by a bluegrass band, Biden implored voters to take back the country from Republicans who have failed to stand up to President Donald Trump, who will hold a rally in Richmond Saturday for U.S. Rep. Andy Barr.
“Our basic American values are under assault,” Biden said. “Values the folks right here in Bath County teach their children every day, about decency, respect, leaving no one behind, giving hate no safe harbor.”
Nationalizing an election is an unusual tactic for Kentucky Democrats, who have spent the last decade trying to distance themselves from former President Barack Obama, but there is little normal about this race.
McGrath, a former fighter pilot and first-time political candidate, has turned a district that Trump won by more than 15 percentage points into a toss-up contest with Barr, all while refusing to run traditionally negative campaign ads.
Barr has attempted to tie McGrath to the national party, calling her “too liberal for Kentucky.” She has tried to mitigate those claims by touting her military record and the fact that she was once a registered independent.
“I do not believe the Democratic Party has all the answers,” McGrath told the crowd. “Both sides need to learn to work together again.”
Biden, though, did not hold back his criticism of Trump and the Republicans who control Congress. He said the country’s reputation is “being tarnished” by the current administration.
“The question is not who Donald Trump is, America knows who he is,” Biden said. “The question is who are we?”
Jodi Whitaker, Barr’s spokeswoman, said McGrath’s decision to bring Biden to the district shows that she “is embracing the failed liberal policies of the past.”
“Kentuckians should remember that Joe Biden and Barack Obama led the war on coal that devastated communities across Kentucky,” Whitaker said. “Kentuckians should remember it was Obama and Biden who drove our economy into the ground with punishing taxes on the middle class and small businesses.”
More than 2,000 people, according to the McGrath campaign, turned out to hear McGrath and Biden stress their message of bringing civility back to politics in Washington.
“Politicians have lost their courage to better the institutions that govern us because it’s easier politically to demonize the concept of government itself,” McGrath said to a long applause. “And it is easier politically to demonize your opponent. I have chosen not to do that.”
Bath County is symbolic of Kentucky’s turn toward Republican candidates in national elections. The county went from supporting John McCain by 24 votes in his presidential bid in 2008 to sending President Donald Trump to the White House by 37 percentage points in 2016.
Barr won the rural county by 38 percentage points two years ago.
Friday’s fish fry with Biden, a man often admired for his ability to connect with working class voters, attempted to straddle the line between embracing the national party and focusing on the struggles of rural communities.
“I know I’m called middle class Joe,” Biden said. “It’s not meant to be a compliment, it means I’m not sophisticated. But I know what made this country what it is: ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”
Biden worked his way through a wide range of national issues, including the Affordable Care Act, foreign policy and stagnant wages, sounding like a potential presidential candidate in 2020.
Both he and McGrath were critical of the Republican effort to replace the Affordable Care Act, an issue that resonated with the crowd.
Sandy Schweder of Georgetown, a retired construction contractor, said one reason he’s backing McGrath is because he wants the Affordable Care Act to survive so it can continue to help Kentuckians.
“There was a time when they voted on it once a week in the House, and it failed,” Schweder said. “They might have set some sort of record.”
Biden took it a step further, saying if Democrats don’t win control of the House, Republicans will work to cut Medicare and Social Security benefits. He painted the election as a “battle for America’s soul.”
“Folks, you know what I know,” Biden said. “This is not hyperbole, this election is bigger than politics.”
Biden’s visit is intended to whip up support among the Democratic base in a race that is expected to hinge on which party’s supporters show up to vote on Election Day.
McGrath has made a significant push in the district’s rural counties, opening field offices in all 19 counties as she tries to avoid the traditional Democratic pitfall of winning only the Democratic-leaning counties of Fayette and Franklin.
“I pledged to be a member of Congress who represents all 19 counties in this district, not just the biggest county and not just the county with the most Democrats,” McGrath said. “And I hope you think that I’ve walked the walk.”