Politics & Government

Amy McGrath launches campaign for U.S. Senate, paints a target on Mitch McConnell

Former Marine Corps fighter pilot Amy McGrath announced Tuesday that she wants to challenge U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in November 2020, ending months of speculation about whether she’d try to take out one of the most powerful political figures in the country.

In a three-minute video on social media and on the MSNBC show Morning Joe, McGrath touched on familiar themes from her failed 2018 bid to defeat U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington — her military service, healthcare, gridlock in Congress — while painting a bullseye on McConnell, blaming him for the dysfunction in the nation’s capital.

“Everything that’s wrong in Washington had to start someplace. How did it come to this, that even within our own families, we can’t talk to each other about the leaders of our country anymore without anger and blame?” McGrath says. “Well it started with this man, who was elected a lifetime ago and who has, bit by bit, year by year, turned Washington into something we all despise.”

With the announcement, McGrath is shrugging off a three-point loss in her first attempt to obtain political office. She becomes the first major Democrat in 2020 to challenge the architect of Kentucky’s modern Republican Party. While Kentucky Sports Radio host Matt Jones and House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins have indicated they are considering running, McGrath’s wide fundraising network — she raised more than $8.6 million against Barr — and a courtship by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee make her a formidable opponent in a primary.

Jones said Tuesday that McGrath’s announcement hasn’t pushed him out of the race.

“I like Amy and I think she’s a terrific person,” Jones said. “Her running basically means that to take down the Republican establishment, I’d also have to take down the Democratic establishment. I need to decide if I want to do that.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, dismissed suggestions that McGrath is his hand-picked choice in the race, saying “she did this all on her own.”

The race will be an uphill battle for any Democrat. While McConnell has long had low approval ratings in the state, he’s bulldozed his opponents and beat Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes by 15 points in 2014. His political machine will likely be aided by President Donald Trump’s name at the top of the ticket in 2020. Trump won Kentucky by a larger margin than he won Alabama in 2016.

McGrath, 44, with her made-for-Hollywood military background, attempted to bridge the divide between rural and urban voters in her bid for Congress, only to come up short in the rural counties of the district by wide margins on election day. But after spending a year appearing at events throughout the state, she appears intent on capitalizing on the perpetual stalemate in Washington D.C. — and the perceived unpopularity of the man who has gleefully become the face of it.

McConnell’s campaign responded on Twitter with a highlight reel of the attack ads Barr’s campaign used against McGrath in 2018. It included clips of her saying she would support single-payer healthcare if the country were starting from scratch, that she supports abortion rights and a clip of her saying she isn’t very different from the national Democratic Party.

“Amy McGrath lost her only race in a Democratic wave election because she is an extreme liberal who is far out of touch with Kentuckians,” said Kevin Golden, McConnell’s campaign manager. “Comparing President Trump’s election to 9/11, endorsing a government takeover of healthcare, and calling the wall ‘stupid’ is a heckuva platform that we will be delighted to discuss over the next sixteen months.”

McGrath launched onto the political scene a little less than two years ago with a similar video, that time standing on a runway while she told her story of accomplishing her childhood dream by becoming the first woman in the Marine Corps to fly in an F-18 into combat. The video quickly brought in both national attention and money as the Democrats attempted to win back control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

After upsetting Lexington Mayor Jim Gray in the primary, McGrath was met with a barrage of ads from Barr and the Republicans defining her as “too liberal for Kentucky.” They were aided by a McGrath comment at a fundraiser in Massachusetts where she said “ I am further left, I am more progressive than anybody in the state of Kentucky.”

The clip played on repeat in the buildup to the election and the narrative stuck. While McGrath talked about putting country over party and taunted Barr, her campaign refused to run traditional attack ads.

That appears to have changed in the Senate race. McGrath went straight for McConnell in her announcement video, blaming him for a congress where “dysfunction and chaos are political weapons, where budgets and healthcare and the Supreme Court are held hostage, a place where ideals go to die” as images of McConnell flash across the screen.

McConnell, 77, has not backed away from his reputation as the killer of bills in the Senate. When Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-California, called him the “grim reaper” in the Senate, McConnell’s campaign openly embraced the moniker. They even started selling t-shirts.

In McConnell’s own three-minute campaign announcement video in April, he even highlighted one of his most consequential decisions in his time as Senate Majority Leader — the decision to block President Barack Obama’s U.S. Supreme Court nominee during the 2016 election. McConnell has celebrated the decision at campaign stops in Kentucky (he closed his Fancy Farm speech in 2017 by saying “Justice Neil Gorsuch”) and has said the decision helped lead to Trump’s election.

The decision has also drawn ire from Democrats. A political action committee called Ditch Mitch raised $1.1 million in the second quarter of 2019 and has run TV ads in Kentucky attacking McConnell over the Supreme Court vacancy, the source of his campaign money and his opposition to the Affordable Care Act.

In her announcement, McGrath touched on similar issues before ending with a promise to restore civility to politics.

“There is a path to resetting our country’s moral compass,” McGrath said. “Where each of us is heard and we can become, once again, the moral and economic leader of a world in disarray. But to do that, we have to win this.”

Lesley Clark contributed to this article from Washington D.C.

Daniel Desrochers has been the political reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader since 2016. He previously worked for the Charleston Gazette-Mail in Charleston, West Virginia.
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