Remember Amy McGrath? Maybe you do. In 2018, the Kentucky Democrat was briefly famous for a viral campaign ad and an ultimately doomed campaign to represent her state’s Sixth Congressional District. A moderate and a former Marine fighter pilot, McGrath is the apotheosis of a particular Democratic electoral strategy: to win in a conservative state, dispatch a veteran with lukewarm politics. That strategy didn’t put McGrath in the House in 2018. But two years later, Senate Democrats tried it again, pitting McGrath against a top prize: Mitch McConnell.
Now she might be lucky to win her primary race.
McGrath faces a robust challenge from Charles Booker, the youngest Black legislator in the Kentucky House of Representatives. Booker has run to her left, and while McGrath holds a major fundraising advantage, Booker is gaining significant momentum ahead of the primary on June 23. Two of the state’s largest newspapers have endorsed him, and on Tuesday, Booker earned another major supporter. Alison Lundergan Grimes, who challenged McConnell in 2014, endorsed him over McGrath.
The Grimes endorsement might be the clearest sign yet that McGrath is in real trouble. Booker already had the backing of a number of progressive politicians and groups, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, but Grimes is no leftist. She’s firmly part of the Kentucky Democratic Establishment, which makes her endorsement something of a surprise — and an unignorable vote of no confidence in McGrath. The retired Marine is backed by the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, but locals are less convinced.
“There’s not a lot of enthusiasm for Amy among Democrats. Charles’ supporters are very enthusiastic,” a Kentucky Democrat recently told Politico. That gap is evident in McGrath’s fundraising, too. She has a lot of money on hand — but over 96 percent of her donations come from people who don’t live in Kentucky. (McConnell’s donations are similarly lopsided.) While Booker has significantly less money at his disposal, his donations are almost evenly split — 54 percent come from out of state, and 46 percent are local.
Enthusiasm might not be enough to propel Booker to victory over McGrath, but it’s a symptom of a bigger problem. National Democrats think they know what Kentucky wants, but Kentucky may disagree. A theory that recommends McGrath over Booker is one worth reconsideration, and not only because Booker marshals local support that McGrath lacks. Whatever momentum McGrath may have been capable of generating, she stifled. Her Senate run is riddled with embarrassments. She said she would have voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh — a no-go area even for many conservative Democrats — before reversing herself in response to outrage. She blurred out the images of two eastern Kentucky coal miners after they threatened to sue her for using them in an ad without their permission. She characterized McConnell as an impediment “in the way of what Donald Trump promised,” a statement understood by many as a way to dodge public criticism of the president.
And as protests over police brutality bring Kentucky’s racial disparities into focus, McGrath’s response has been muffled. In a new ad, the candidate mentions George Floyd, recently killed by Minneapolis police, but not Breonna Taylor, who was killed in her sleep by police in McGrath’s very own state. The Louisville officers responsible for her death remain at large; meanwhile, Taylor’s killing has become a major rallying cry for a nationwide protest movement. McGrath also didn’t mention David McAtee, a Louisville restaurant owner recently killed by members of the National Guard.
Small wonder Booker’s campaign is surging.