Politics & Government

What should Amy McGrath do next? ‘Run for governor,’ says her campaign manager.

On Tuesday night, as elections results trickled in, the energy at Amy McGrath’s election night party quickly deflated. The supporters who were so certain they would be celebrating the election of Kentucky’s first Democratic congresswoman were instead left wondering: what’s next?

McGrath’s campaign manager, Mark Nickolas, thinks he has the answer.

“I feel strongly that Amy McGrath should get back on the horse and run for governor,” Nickolas told the Herald-Leader Wednesday.

Nickolas said he has not spoken to McGrath about a potential gubernatorial candidacy, but said he plans to approach her with the idea in the next few days. He said he thinks the Kentucky Democratic Party is in “desperate need of new young politicians.”

When McGrath was asked by reporters Tuesday night whether she could see herself running for office again, she said “we’ll see.”

Nickolas is convinced she has the name recognition, the popularity and the campaign infrastructure to launch a statewide run for governor. He talked about how Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin lost his first campaign, a primary against U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, and how former Democratic congressman Ben Chandler lost his gubernatorial race before winning his seat in Congress.

“There’s something to be said for building on your momentum,” Nickolas said.

Retired U.S. Marine Lt. Colonel Amy McGrath waved to her supporters after she gave her concession speech Tuesday nighty in the lobby of the Eastern Kentucky University Center for the Arts in Richmond, Ky. McGrath was defeated by incumbent Republican Congressman Andy Barr. Charles Bertram cbertram@herald-leader.com

Vote totals from Tuesday night, though, don’t suggest McGrath would fare well outside Lexington and Louisville in a statewide race. McGrath only lost to U.S. Rep. Andy Barr by 3 percentage points overall in Kentucky’s Sixth Congressional District, but Barr won by huge margins in most of the 19-county district. She won Fayette County by a large margin and claimed 54 percent of the vote in Franklin County, where Democrats had hoped to send a stronger rebuke to the Republican administration of Gov. Matt Bevin.

“Ultimately, we’ve lost the rural areas of the party nationally,” said Jonathan Miller, a former Democratic state treasurer. “The urban areas are Democratic, the rural areas are Republican and we’re fighting over the suburbs.”

Nickolas hoped to run a campaign that would take a progressive message directly to rural voters. The McGrath campaign set up field offices in every county in the district and attempted to operate a grassroots campaign. But the voters chose instead to stick with Barr, who touted his connections with the administration of President Donald Trump.

Republicans attributed her struggles in the rural counties to Barr’s aggressive ad campaign defining her as too liberal for Kentucky.

“This was really a self-inflicted wound,” said Les Fugate, a Republican political analyst. “You can’t possibly describe yourself as the most liberal candidate in the state of Kentucky and expect to win.”

McGrath also wasn’t helped as much as Democrats had hoped by teachers who were outraged over a Republican-backed pension system overhaul. For all the calls of “remember in November” that were made in April, teachers appeared to forget on Tuesday.

That was a positive sign for Bevin, a Republican who remains unpopular in the state.

“If I’m Matt Bevin and I’m waking up in China and I’m seeing those election results, I’m emboldened,” Fugate said.

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin speaks at the Republican Party of Kentucky’s Lincoln Dinner at the Hilton Downtown in Lexington, Ky., Aug 25, 2018. Marcus Dorsey mdorsey@herald-leader.com

Bevin is a unique figure in Kentucky politics and was trotted out as a boogeyman as Democrats tried to win back state House seats. But the argument didn’t appear to stick, even after Bevin was booed at a rally for President Donald Trump in Richmond.

“He might be unpopular at the moment, but he is a tremendous retail politician and once he gets back on the campaign trail he is unique in his ability to convince people of what he’s selling them,” said Tres Watson, spokesman for the Kentucky Republican Party.

In order to challenge Bevin, McGrath would first have to make it out of a competitive Democratic primary. Attorney General Andy Beshear announced his campaign for governor in July and is expected to be joined by House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins next week. Former Auditor Adam Edelen is expected to announce later in November and Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes is considering the race.

“I don’t see the campaign on the Democrats’ side that’s going to knock the governor off,” Watson said.

While Tuesday made it clear Kentucky remains a Republican-dominated state, Democrats still have high hopes of winning back the Governor’s Mansion in 2019, an off-year election where it is more difficult to nationalize the race.

“We’re in an era where Republicans dominate,” Miller said. “But I think Democrats can win the governor’s seat on occasion and I think 2019 might be one of those occasions.”

Miller said the outcome of the governor’s race will depend on what happens in the 2019 legislative session as Republicans continue to govern with a super-majority.

“The expectations are going to be really high,” Miller said.