Former fighter pilot Amy McGrath surged to victory over Lexington Mayor Jim Gray Tuesday in the Democratic primary for Kentucky's 6th Congressional District, setting up a November election that will attract national money and attention as Democrats try to make Kentucky part of a possible blue wave in 2018.
"Can you believe this?" McGrath asked the crowd at her victory party in Richmond. "What happened tonight was amazing. I couldn't be more humbled and more honored to be standing here tonight as your nominee."
She is a candidate who fits the Democratic moment. The former fighter pilot — the first woman Marine to fly into combat in an F-18 — is a political newcomer at a time Democrats across the country are looking for a fresh response to the 2016 election of President Donald Trump.
There are no women in Kentucky's congressional delegation.
Gray was widely perceived as the front-runner when he entered the race last December after months of encouragement from national Democrats. That encouragement was quickly used by McGrath’s campaign to paint Lexington's first openly gay mayor as the establishment candidate, a definition he was never able to shake.
Andy Barr, R-Lexington, coasted to victory over his primary opponent, Chuck Eddy, a self-defined moderate Republican who ran a limited campaign, setting up what’s expected to be a competitive and expensive general election in the fall.
“McGrath already drew a lot of positive attention nationwide by people drawn by her candidacy,” said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky. “I expect a lot of money and support to flow into her campaign in the days ahead.”
That money will be necessary as McGrath tries to unseat Barr in November. As the Democrats waged an expensive primary, Barr quietly built his campaign coffers and had $2,311,559 on hand as of his last financial filing deadline.
"I cannot wait to run on the record we have established in these three terms," Barr said in a phone interview Tuesday. "...We expect thousands of the Democrats who turned out and voted in today's election to do what they've done in these past three elections and come out and vote for us in the fall."
Republicans came out swinging Tuesday evening.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, which called McGrath a "radical liberal," has already designated the 6th Congressional District as one it plans to defend in November. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a House Republican Super PAC, has already set up a field office in the 19-county district that stretches from the Lexington suburbs to the foothills of Appalachia.
Billy Piper, the former chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said McGrath “district shopped” until she found the 6th District, mimicking a last-minute ad the Gray campaign launched criticizing McGrath for moving to the district last year.
“I think that the Democrats have nominated the worst possible candidate they could have nominated,” Piper said.
The Democratic primary was a race where the three major candidates pretty much saw eye-to-eye on the issues. State Sen. Reggie Thomas carved out a lane as the most progressive of the three, but support didn’t follow as he struggled to raise the money needed to keep up with McGrath and Gray.
McGrath defined herself as the “next generation of political leader” as Gray leaned on his experience as mayor of Lexington, heavily emphasizing his response to the opioid crisis as mayor near the end of the campaign.
Her campaign played well with rural voters. While Gray won Fayette County, the largest in the district, McGrath won the remaining 18 counties.
"It was a spirited campaign, and I know that Andy Barr is in for the fight of his life," Gray said "I am ready to help Amy. "
Tuesday’s results leave Gray’s future in the air. After effectively turning down a third term as mayor to run for Congress, Gray, at 64, is left without a next logical step to his political career.
"When one door closes, another opens," Gray said. "Tomorrow I'll be back at work in the mayor's office with no regrets."
The Democratic candidates talked about health care throughout the primary and it’s likely an issue that will carry through to the general election. Barr was an enthusiastic supporter of the Republican effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, a position that raised the ire of some in a state that has largely benefited from the Medicaid expansion tied to the plan.
Piper, though, said he doesn’t think Barr is vulnerable.
“I think it’s wishful thinking and I think it underestimates how hard he works,” Piper said.
Nancy Fouser,a semi-retired owner of an environmental laboratory in Versailles, said it was "easy" to get people to back McGrath.
"It was probably the easiest race ever," she said. "So many people said when you looked at her TV commercials that she just seemed so sincere."
Many people liked Jim Gray, she said, but switched to McGrath after meeting her or watching her on TV, Fouser said.
"It wasn't that people disliked Jim," she said. "Amy just connected."
|Geoffrey M. "Geoff" Young|
|Theodore David Green|