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For Martha McKenna, All Politics Is Personal

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call

To her friends, Martha McKenna is Baltimore’s ambassador, but Democrats have chosen her to be a critical part of holding their Senate majority.

The 37-year-old Democratic operative was born in Chicago, but there is no question that Charm City is home. It’s where McKenna grew up, got her start in politics and notched her most significant win. But her broader campaign experience on races at all levels, at EMILY’s List and at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, made her the first woman to head a Senate committee’s independent expenditure arm.

It’s not the first time she didn’t fit the mold.

“They were looking for a white, preppy guy to run my campaign,” former Kentucky state Rep. Eleanor Jordan remembered. Instead, they found a young woman in jeans and taking meticulous notes steering the ship of the Democrat’s Congressional campaign a dozen years ago.   

But, at first, even Jordan wasn’t sure what to make of McKenna.  

“Has she won anything?” Jordan asked her longtime adviser during a national search for someone to manage her challenge to a very formidable incumbent. Up to that point, McKenna’s résumé consisted of two failed Congressional campaigns in Maryland and an unsuccessful race in Missouri.

“She had a lot of confidence for someone with such little experience, but I picked up that she wasn’t overconfident,” Jordan told Roll Call recently. McKenna hit the ground running and led a team that combined the legislator’s longtime advisers and new consultants through a competitive primary and general election.  

“There were days I doubted myself, but I never doubted Martha,” Jordan recalled fondly, even though she didn’t always like McKenna’s prodding. “I hated raising money ... but she wouldn’t let me get away with saying ‘I’ll do it tomorrow.’”

As Jordan’s manager, McKenna was a small part of one of the most famous television ads in a Congressional race.

“I have a fundraiser at 6 o’clock and I want to get out of here,” Jordan said on the floor of the Legislature. Republican Rep. Anne Northup put the footage in an ad and won the race. McKenna didn’t take it well.

“I was devastated,” she recalled.

It wasn’t McKenna’s first loss and wouldn’t be her last, but the personal connection with and commitment to her candidates keeps her going.

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