Amy McGrath beamed as she took the podium at her election party in Kentucky.
“Can you believe this?” she asked the crowd. “What happened tonight is amazing.”
McGrath, a retired Marine fighter pilot, pulled off an upset victory in a Democratic primary House race in Kentucky on Tuesday night, defeating the party establishment candidate.
McGrath emerged from a three-person race in Kentucky’s Sixth District, beating her main challenger, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray. The race was called around 8 pm, with McGrath winning with 46 percent of the vote to Gray’s 42.3 percent. Gray, a millionaire who ran for US Senate against Rand Paul in 2016, initially had the backing of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).
McGrath positioned herself as an outsider from day one, taking the DCCC’s lack of an initial endorsement and running with it. Even as the organization sent out an email on Tuesday night praising McGrath’s win and looking forward to the general election in November, the nominee pointed to how party insiders believed she couldn’t win at the start.
“Six months ago, political pundits and establishment insiders didn’t think we could pull this off,” she told her crowd of supporters. “Did you ever show them! What those insiders maybe still don’t know is how this happened. Well, I know how it happened. It’s because you all care about the future of our country, and you have a renewed sense of purpose in fighting for what America really is.”
Throughout the campaign, McGrath branded herself as a change agent, part of a new generation of young candidates and Congress members, and touted her lack of political experience — the very thing her Democratic opponents attacked her for.
“Recruiting the same types of big-city, older millionaires is not the future,” McGrath said in a January interview with Vox. “Especially in the Democratic Party, we cannot keep relying on a staple of rich white people, old men, to save the Democratic Party.”
Now she has the full support of national Democrats as she challenges incumbent Republican Rep. Andy Barr in the fall.
“Battle-tested in more ways than one, Amy McGrath ran a tremendous race to win this competitive primary and could not be in a stronger position to win in November,” DCCC Chair Rep. Ben Ray Luján said in a statement shortly after the race was called. “Amy has built a formidable campaign, and voters across the district have responded to her message of leadership and standing up for affordable health care.”
The ultimate test in November comes down to whether McGrath can convince Trump voters to cast their ballots for her instead of Barr. The district leans Republican, and many of its rural counties voted for the current president in 2016. It contains 100,000 more registered Democratic voters, but it’s prime Trump country.
Rural areas in the east part of the district went big for McGrath on Tuesday, which bodes well for her strategy in November.
In #KY06 Dem race, huge increase in turnout in eastern rural counties with almost no Dem turnout in 2016 primary. But little to no turnout hike in Franklin (Frankfort) or Madison counties. Maybe conservative registered Dems like the fighter pilot!— Henry Olsen (@henryolsenEPPC) May 22, 2018
Barr will face a tough election no matter what. Democrats have mounted credible challenges to him in past years but fell short on fundraising. That’s different this year. McGrath fundraised millions for the primary. Barr will also have to defend his votes for Obamacare repeal and GOP tax cuts.
McGrath previewed the issues she’ll continue to run on in the general election against Barr: affordable health care, quality K-12 education (a big issue in the state of Kentucky, which has seen teachers strikes), and paying for college.
“If I’ve learned anything on this journey, I’ve learned that people want badly to believe in their leaders again,” she said. “They want to know that they’re honest. They want to know that their leaders have the moral courage to stand up and do what’s right. We can’t make these things happen unless we fix a broken Congress, and tonight is a huge step in that direction.”
“As a Marine fighter pilot I fought for all Americans,” McGrath continued. “As a member of Congress, I will fight for all Kentuckians.”