Amy McGrath may have been a good fighter pilot, but the Kentucky Democrat’s Senate campaign is on a collision course with failure. The Lexington Herald-Leader reported on Thursday that two coal miners are suing her campaign for using their likenesses in an ad without their consent. In a cease-and-desist letter published by the Herald-Leader, an attorney claims that the men never agreed to appear in a campaign ad. Instead, they allegedly believed that they were participating in a documentary about their recent lobbying efforts, which included a trip to Washington, D.C., to ask members of Congress to reinstate an excise tax that had supported the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund. “Black lung does not discriminate by party affiliation,” the letter says, “and my clients believe that people of good will from both political parties are working hard to address the needs of coal miners with black lung disease.”
The Herald-Leader’s report seems to confirm a story that first surfaced days ago. On an episode of the Trillbilly Worker’s Party, a left-wing comedy podcast based in the Kentucky town of Whitesburg, co-host Tanya Turner described an unusual encounter with a pair of miners. According to Turner, the men showed up at Appalshop — the arts-and-education center where she works — to find out why the documentary they thought they’d filmed for the nonprofit had appeared in a McGrath campaign ad. One reportedly told Turner that a cameraman told him directly that the footage was for the nonprofit, which has produced documentaries in the past. When the film later appeared in the McGrath ad, they were irate. (In the interest of transparency: I’ve appeared on the podcast and subscribe to its Patreon.)
The McGrath campaign disputes the claims in the cease-and-desist letter, and told the Herald-Leader that the miners all knew the footage would be used for a campaign ad. Perhaps there was a miscommunication, and in fairness to McGrath, some miners have indeed expressed public displeasure with the level of McConnell’s commitment to the trust fund. Nevertheless, the story is bad for McGrath, whose campaign had closed the ad with a loaded query. “Which side are you on?” McGrath asks the camera — a criticism of McConnell, who allowed the excise tax to lapse, and a callback to a famous union anthem, penned amid a bloody struggle between Harlan miners and violent coal operators in the 1930s. It’s a reference that Kentucky Senate hopefuls should deploy with care at any time, but it’s uniquely sensitive now. Black lung rates are rising. Blackjewel, a major coal operator, abruptly declared bankruptcy this summer, which cost the region jobs and stranded miners without their last two paychecks. In Harlan County, former miners for Blackjewel have blocked coal trains for over a month to demand their pay.
Unfortunately for McGrath, the lawsuit also isn’t the first scandal her campaign has had to weather. The former U.S. Marine earned national good will by narrowly losing to a Republican incumbent in the state’s Sixth Congressional District. And Democrats are hungry for a viable challenge to McConnell. She raised $2.5 million the first day of her campaign, but since then, she’s tripped over herself repeatedly. “A lot of what has stood in the way of what Donald Trump promised is Senator McConnell,” she told the New York Times in July. Days later, she said she would have voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court despite a credible report that he had sexually assaulted Christine Blasey-Ford in high school. She later reversed that position after public pressure, as CNBC reported at the time.
An inauspicious start, to be certain — but McGrath could have righted herself, and she hasn’t. She’s besieged, still, by bad press largely of her own making. Matt Jones, a popular sports-media personality, who criticized her early missteps and may challenge her in the Democratic primary, says that her campaign manager got him fired from his television show. Sources told the Intercept in August that the aide, Mark Nickolas, had indeed “boasted” of getting Jones fired, though the McGrath campaign denied the story. The channel itself says it fired him because the sportscaster is writing a political book about McConnell. Its title? Mitch, Please!
This is a mess. McGrath probably isn’t to blame for all of it, but she’s done little to help herself. McGrath’s campaign is barely two months old, but it already looks and sounds as if it were designed by lonely wonks who can no longer recall the precise shape of human life. Her missteps might cost her a Senate race anywhere. But they are uniquely dangerous in Kentucky, where she theoretically has a chance to knock out Donald Trump’s principle enabler in Congress.