Politics & Government

Trump goes after McGrath, backs McConnell on first day of 2020 Senate campaign

President Donald Trump threw the weight of his presidency — and his popularity in Kentucky — behind U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell Tuesday, endorsing McConnell on the same day the Republican leader saw his first major Democratic challenger in the 2020 election.

Hours after former Marine Corps pilot Amy McGrath officially entered the race to challenge McConnell, Trump took to Twitter to voice his support.

“Democrats are coming after our great Kentucky Senator, Mitch McConnell, with someone who compared my election to September 11th....” Trump tweeted Tuesday night. “....Why would Kentucky ever think of giving up the most powerful position in Congress, the Senate Majority Leader, for a freshman Senator with little power in what will hopefully be the minority party. We need Mitch in the Senate to Keep America Great!!”

Trump was referencing a comment McGrath made during her 2018 campaign to unseat U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, where she called Trump’s election feeling like “someone had sucker-punched” her and compared the feeling to the feeling she felt on the September 11th terrorist attacks.

McGrath, interviewed by CNN’s Jake Tapper Tuesday, tried to walk back the comment by using a line similar to the one she used in 2018 when she said the statement was about the feeling of polarization in 2016’s presidential election.

McConnell, who remained silent on Trump for much of the 2016 election, has played up his connection to the president in Kentucky as he approached his seventh election. McConnell’s April reelection campaign announcement featured compliments from the president layered over an agenda McConnell helped Trump pass.

The Senator’s ties to Trump are especially critical for McConnell, who has low approval ratings in Kentucky while the president remains well-liked. Trump is expected to visit in 2019 as Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin attempts to beat back his Democratic challenger, Attorney General Andy Beshear, in appearances that will likely benefit McConnell as well.

Meanwhile, McGrath started her bid for Senate by attempting to create distance between McConnell and Trump. In her first interview as a candidate, McGrath accused McConnell of blocking potential Trump policies that could have benefited Kentuckians. It’s part of a wider campaign strategy to paint McConnell as an obstructionist that symbolizes the “swamp” in Washington, the man who blocks government from doing it’s job.

But by Tuesday night, McGrath was back on MSNBC saying she couldn’t vote for Trump because she doesn’t like his foreign policy positions.

“I don’t think I could vote for Donald Trump because, for one, I’m not a fan of the president or commander-in-chief wrapping his arms around any dictator,” McGrath said.

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.