Politics & Government

‘A bumpy start.’ Can Amy McGrath recover from a rocky campaign roll-out?

It has been a rough 48 hours for former Marine Corps pilot Amy McGrath. Within hours of her campaign’s launch, McGrath has already taken to Twitter to reverse and apologize for an early gaffe.

“I know I disappointed many today with my initial answer on how I would have voted on Brett Kavanaugh,” McGrath said on Twitter. “I will make mistakes and always own up to them. The priority is defeating Mitch McConnell.”

Earlier on Wednesday, McGrath told reporters she would have voted to confirm Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. After strong backlash from Democrats and progressives, she later took to Twitter to reverse herself.

But McGrath’s answer about Kavanaugh Wednesday wasn’t her initial one. During her first campaign in 2018, she opposed Kavanaugh even before he was accused of sexual misconduct by Christine Blasey-Ford, arguing that he was a partisan and he was against women’s reproductive rights (McGrath’s campaign says she never reached a definitive conclusion about his nomination).

The gaffe, which came as she was getting criticism for being too liberal by Republicans and not liberal enough by Democrats, threatened to undercut the very feature that helped win her a national following during her 2018 race — her authenticity. After marketing herself as a straight-talking outsider who rejects partisan politics, McGrath’s attempts to walk the fine line between maintaining her Democratic base and winning over Democrats or moderate Republicans who voted for President Donald Trump and dislike McConnell were fraught.

“There’s no question this was a bumpy start,” said Senate Minority Floor Leader Morgan McGarvey, D-Louisville.

The early stumbles have led to speculation of other major Democrats entering the race — including McGarvey, Kentucky Sports Radio host Matt Jones and House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins — as Democrats question whether McGrath has the ability to bounce back from her mistakes and launch a serious challenge to McConnell as Republicans are gleefully piling on.

“Campaigns are marathons,” said Matt Erwin, a Democratic strategist. “A month is a year in a campaign. There’s a lot left to run.”

Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Kentucky, said a Democratic primary could be good practice for going up against McConnell, a ruthless campaigner.

“When you’re preparing to run against Mitch McConnell, a primary can be helpful,” Yarmuth said, adding they “sharpen your skills and sensitivity.”

Yarmuth says he believes the Kavanaugh statement was “clearly a mistake” but that he’s more troubled by McGrath’s attempt to appeal to voters who back Trump but don’t like McConnell.

“It’s a waste of time,” he said, contending that Democrats can only win statewide in Kentucky by running up the margins in the blue parts of the state, including Louisville, Lexington and Frankfort. He noted McGrath in her 2018 congressional race tried to win over rural counties, but failed to deliver large enough margins in Fayette and Franklin counties. Those rural votes, he said, are “fools gold.”

McGrath, introducing herself to much of Kentucky, having never launched a statewide campaign, has long attempted to sell her authenticity. During her congressional race, she fostered a reputation of “telling it like it is” where she would go to events and talk about how she felt both parties needed to change their approach to politics in Washington and get out from under their partisan silos.

“I think Mitch McConnell has shown time and time again that he is willing to shift with the political winds to do what it takes to stay in power,” McGarvey said. “A successful opponent must be authentic and be willing to share what they believe.”

But after being tagged as “too liberal for Kentucky” for much of 2018, the former pilot has adopted some of Trump’s 2016 campaign language, like “drain the swamp,” while emphasizing her willingness to work with the president on ideas she supports. When asked if she was attempting to rebrand herself, McGrath scoffed.

“Is that your opinion?” McGrath said. “How do you think I’m rebranding?”

McGrath still managed to bring in $3.5 million in the first two days of her campaign, a haul larger than some presidential candidates who appeared on-stage at the Democratic debates last month, and her support from national Democrats does not appear to have dwindled.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nevada, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, dismissed concerns about the mulligan, saying she’s been impressed by what she said was a “lot of enthusiasm” generated by McGrath’s candidacy.

“In the first 24 hours she raised nearly $2.5 million, she knows the issues that are important to Kentucky and she’s fighting and working on those issues, from health care to high prescription drug costs to how we pay for schools,” she said.

Asked whether she viewed the takeback as a rookie mistake, Cortez Masto smiled broadly as the elevator doors closed.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, who chaired the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for the 2018 cycle, called her campaign “full steam ahead. She’s a terrific candidate, this is going to be a long campaign and I think she’s the right person for the times.”

He said he believed McGrath would be able to put the incident behind her.

“I have no doubt she’ll move on and continue to do battle,” he said. “There’s a huge amount of enthusiasm behind her candidacy and she’s done very well in terms of raising funds quickly.”

McGrath, however, has not been endorsed by the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee even though they helped recruit her into the race.

Ryan Aquilina, the executive director of Ditch Mitch, a political action committee dedicated solely to efforts to defeat McConnell, said only one donor had called to request a refund.

He said he was impressed that McGrath admitted to a misstep and said he doubted it would affect fundraising.

“She admitted she made a mistake, everyone does,” he said. “I think that’s what people want in someone running for office, the ability to acknowledge when they’ve made a mistake and correct it.”

He charged that McConnell has never admitted making a mistake “in his 35 years in Washington.”

“The fact that she can is really refreshing,” he said.

Back home, amid whispers about major primary challengers weighing whether it’s worth it to get in a primary where their opponent has raised so much money, so quickly, the steadfast support is more questionable. Democrats, reluctant to bring down McGrath in public, have scratched their heads behind closed doors.

“They (McGrath’s campaign) haven’t seen a machine like the McConnell machine when it comes to reacting and positioning themselves for the next stage of the campaign,” said Les Fugate, a Republican lobbyist. “Her big challenge now, is the major fundraisers out there, do they see her as someone who can actually take on McConnell?”

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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