Marine veteran Amy McGrath won the Democratic nomination in Kentucky’s 6th District on Tuesday and will take on Republican Rep. Andy Barr in November.
With 95 percent of precincts reporting, McGrath led Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, 49 percent to 41 percent, when The Associated Press called the race.
National Democrats increasingly view the 6th District seat as a top pickup opportunity, with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee releasing its own polling Tuesday night from earlier this month showing McGrath with a 15-point lead over Barr.
The DCCC had encouraged Gray to enter the race last year — months after McGrath had already launched her campaign — which McGrath use to painted Gray, the 2016 Democratic nominee for Senate, as the establishment candidate in the race. She argued that she’d bring a new generation of leadership to Congress.
Her candidacy earned early national attention last summer, but earlier in the race, she was running significantly behind Gray, who had strong local ties. That began to change this spring. Polling released by McGrath’s campaign in April showed her closing a large gap since December and taking the lead.
McGrath burst on to the national scene with an introductory video in which she talked about writing letters to members of Congress asking them to allow women to fly in combat. The video went viral and helped her raise early money.
Despite raising more than twice what Barr did during her first quarter in the race, McGrath’s candidacy still gave national Democrats pause. Gray entered the primary four months later.
Gray started with a hefty name recognition advantage, the ability to pour personal resources into his campaign (although he did not, as of his latest Federal Election Commission filing) and strong local support.
Although he lost statewide two years earlier to GOP Sen. Rand Paul — when he could have become the first openly gay member of the Senate — Gray carried the 6th District by 4 points in that race. For his bid for the 6th, he secured the endorsement of the Lexington Herald-Leader and the United Steelworkers.
Despite supporting abortion rights, McGrath did not seek the endorsement of EMILY’s List, further distancing herself from national Democrats.
McGrath campaign manager Mark Nickolas said not being the candidate the DCCC at first wanted allowed her campaign to experiment with an early field effort.
“Actually, not having the DCCC was liberating in some ways. [There was] nobody to crack down us,” Nickolas said last week.
Still, the DCCC never put Gray on its Red to Blue list of strong recruits, showing some openness to either candidate even if Gray was their early favorite. Late donations to McGrath from the leadership PAC of Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos — a member of House Democratic leadership — and Florida Rep. Lois Frankel — a member of DCCC leadership — suggested the national party had come around to her.
Late last week, Gray launched the first negative ad of the race, going after McGrath for only recently moving to the district. She’d faced that attack before from other candidates in debates, which gave her an opportunity to highlight her military service. She was the first female Marine pilot to fly into combat in an F-18.
McGrath grew up in northern Kentucky, then attended the Naval Academy. After serving three combat tours, she worked on Capitol Hill as a fellow in the office of California Democratic Rep. Susan A. Davis. She then worked at the Pentagon and later taught at her alma mater before returning to the Bluegrass State in 2017.
But another knock of McGrath was that she raised a lot of her money from out of state. In the primary, her campaign argued that was because Gray had locked up all the local donors. But attacks on McGrath for ties outside of the 6th District will likely continue to dog her in the general election.
Republicans wasted no time attacking McGrath after her victory.
"Now, Democrats are stuck with an ultra-liberal candidate who can’t even name the counties she wants to represent in Congress," Congressional Leadership Fund executive director Corry Bliss said in a statement.
McGrath ended the pre-primary reporting period with $302,000 in the bank — far short of the $2.3 million in Barr’s coffers.
But this race has already attracted outside attention. Congressional Leadership Fund has already reserved $1.8 million in fall airtime for the district. Its Democratic counterpart, House Majority PAC, made a smaller half-million-dollar initial reservation in the Lexington media market.
President Donald Trump carried the 6th District by 15 points in 2016, while Barr won a third term by 22 points. But national Democrats are increasingly optimistic about their chances in this area, and expect to run against the incumbent’s vote to repeal the 2010 health care law.
In the poll the DCCC released Tuesday, conducted by its Targeting and Analytics Department, McGrath earned 52 percent to Barr's 37 percent. The poll surveyed 508 likely general election voters between April 30 and May 2 via landlines on IVR and cell phones via live calls. The margin of error was plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
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