On the Sunday before the midterm election, I was in Amy McGrath’s campaign headquarters in Richmond, along with a large group of canvassers of widely ranging ages awaiting the appearance of the candidate.
As expected, McGrath arrived promptly at noon. She greeted us by saying she had just come from church, presumably St. Mark’s Catholic Church, a stone’s throw down Main Street from the Democratic headquarters.
She thanked us for all the hours and effort we had put into her campaign to date. Then she shared with us something a great Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, had once said: that the highest form of patriotism is political participation. And to do that right meant three things: working hard, working with integrity and working for justice.
TR’s formula for honorable political involvement is an admirable summary of the campaign that McGrath ran. In a very unreceptive climate for a progressive Democrat, McGrath worked harder than any previous candidate in 6th District memory. She declared that she was going to reach out to all the 19 counties in the district, no matter how red they had become in the last decade. And she did, setting up offices in each, and visiting them time and time again.
In a state poisoned by Sen. Mitch McConnell’s win-at-all costs strategy of demonizing opponents, she pledged to run a positive campaign that focused on the economic and social issues bedeviling Kentucky and transparently presented nuanced policies for combating them. She presented a vision of what a candidate, dedicated to working in a bipartisan fashion could achieve for the common good, for all of the people who make up this commonwealth and nation.
And what did her opponent do? What you would expect a protégé of McConnell to do. What Andy Barr has always done, since his first campaign when he secured political traction by twisting the reality of a dying industry into a phony war that the Democrats were supposedly waging against coal (when the real war was the ongoing one that the coal industry was waging against the environment).
He lied, he distorted, he misrepresented. His scurrilous ads depicted McGrath as championing abortion in the ninth month, open borders and socialized medicine. None of that was true. In one ad someone dressed as a coal miner denounced McGrath as an ally of Obama in his anti-coal crusade. Then, at the ads’ close the definitive voice: “Amy McGrath — too liberal for Kentucky.”
Barr knew all too well that the people he was aiming the ads at would not stop to think about what the word “liberal” meant. He knew that in the epicenter of Trump country, his supporters would not realize that they themselves favor the major liberal policies concerning health care, taxation, the environment, infrastructure, and education.
Barr knows that code words like “liberal,” “the wall,” “taxation,” “Obama,” and “Pelosi” will work their magic with his close-minded and politically inert supporters. The Republican Party in Kentucky, as elsewhere, has built a constituency on racism, xenophobia, anti-abortion, and an aversion to fair-share taxation. Few of them are open to the appeals of even the most civic-minded, honest, dedicated politicians such as McGrath. Few of them are bothered by Barr’s subservience to the banking industry, including payday lenders.
And yet McGrath did make a difference in 2018. For the first time since Barr won office, the Sixth District had a competitive race, so competitive that Barr was forced into disgracing himself by the vile ads that defined his campaign. His three-point margin of victory was less than a seventh of what it had been in 2016. And McGrath had achieved it with her honor intact, epitomizing Michelle Obama’s axiom: when they take the low road, we take the high one.
That proved to be not enough this year. But it would be tragic if McGrath stops now, after such a valiant effort. She has built a formidable organization. She has attracted an enthusiastic, broad-based constituency that a presidential election year can increase significantly. Early in 2019 she should make clear her intention to run again. Central Kentucky needs her. The nation needs her.
Robert Emmett Curran of Richmond is professor of history emeritus for Georgetown University.