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Amy McGrath has officially announced her Senate race against Mitch McConnell

McGrath’s viral candidacy for Congress fell short in 2018. Now she’s running against the most powerful senator in Washington.

Democratic House Candidate In Kentucky Amy McGrath Holds Election Night Event In Richmond, Kentucky
Amy McGrath addressed supporters after her midterm election loss in 2018. She’s now running against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2020.
Jason Davis/Getty Images

Retired Lt. Col. Amy McGrath, the Marine Corps veteran and fighter pilot who ran and lost her race as a Democrat for Kentucky’s Sixth Congressional District in 2018, is taking her political ambitions statewide: She’s running against powerful Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

If any 2020 Senate race could be compared to a David-and-Goliath matchup, it’s this one. McConnell has been in office since 1985, when he narrowly beat then-Democratic Sen. Walter “Dee” Huddleston. As the leader of the Republican Senate, McConnell is undoubtedly the most powerful member of the GOP on Capitol Hill. And Kentucky as a state is heavily-pro Trump; the president has a 15-point net positive approval rating there, per Morning Consult.

McGrath, by contrast, saw her biggest political success at the start of her 2018 candidacy, when the video announcing her campaign that emphasized her military service went viral and helped propel her to a primary win over an establishment Democrat. She made her Senate announcement on Tuesday with a much more somber video, painting McConnell as the root of everything wrong with Washington.

In her video, McGrath says that McConnell “bit by bit, year by year, turned Washington into something we all despise ... a place where ideals go to die.”

McConnell’s team wasted no time responding with their own video of sound bites of McGrath from her 2018 campaign calling herself the most progressive candidate in the race, and referring to Trump’s southern border wall “stupid” and a “waste of money.” They superimposed McGrath’s face next to Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Hillary Clinton.

The message McConnell is trying to send to voters: Amy McGrath is too liberal for Kentucky.

“Amy McGrath lost her only race in a Democratic wave election because she is an extreme liberal who is far out of touch with Kentuckians,” said Kevin Golden, McConnell’s campaign manager, in a statement to Vox. “Comparing President Trump’s election to 9/11, endorsing a government takeover of healthcare, and calling the wall ‘stupid’ is a heckuva platform that we will be delighted to discuss over the next 16 months.”

After her 2018 candidacy, McGrath is probably the most well-known name in Kentucky Democratic politics to take on McConnell. But given that she didn’t win the state’s Sixth District, combined with how pro-Trump Kentucky is and the millions McConnell will spend against her, winning would be a Herculean task.

Cook Political Report House editor Dave Wasserman, who charted McGrath’s candidacy in 2018, put it this way in a tweet: “Having covered her impressive ‘18 performance in a red district, I mean this in all seriousness: Amy McGrath would actually have a better chance at the presidency in ‘20 than #KYSEN.”

Kentucky loves Trump, and McConnell and McGrath are both trying to get Trump voters

McConnell has a low 36 percent approval rating in his home state, and he’s been going out of his way to tie himself to President Trump, whose approval is much higher. McGrath, likewise, knows that Kentucky is a heavily pro-Trump state, and she is clearly trying to paint McConnell as a bigger villain than the president.

On a Tuesday appearance on Morning Joe, McGrath said McConnell is obstructing Trump’s agenda that Kentuckians want to see get done.

“The things that Kentuckians voted for Trump for are not being done. He’s not able to get it done because of Sen. McConnell,” McGrath said. “If you think about why Kentuckians voted for Trump, they wanted to drain the swamp, and Trump said he was going to do that. Trump promised to bring back jobs. He promised to lower drug prices for so many Kentuckians, and that is very important — and who stops the president from doing these things? Well, Mitch McConnell.”

Painting McConnell as a roadblock to the president’s agenda is something particular to McGrath’s campaign to win over pro-Trump Kentuckians, but attacking the Senate leader in general is part of a larger Democratic strategy. Some recent polling by the firm Global Strategy Group shows McConnell may be a bigger villain for Democrats than even Trump. The poll, paid for by the campaign finance reform group End Citizens United, found that exposing Democratic voters to messaging about McConnell made the Democratic lead on the generic ballot grow substantially, from a 3 percentage point advantage to a 12-point one.

“He’s a walking, talking definition of what people hate about Washington and the corrupt political system today,” Democratic pollster Matt Canter recently told the Huffington Post’s Kevin Robillard.

In short, McConnell represents everything liberals (and some moderates) think is wrong with Washington. He is synonymous with money in politics — something he has fiercely defended for decades as being part of constitutionally protected free speech. The Senate under McConnell’s leadership barely legislates; instead, Republicans are focused on confirming judges at a rapid clip, reshaping America’s courts to be more conservative.

McConnell, it should be noted, has seemed to delight in being painted as Democrats’ Enemy No. 1. He’s called himself the “grim reaper” of the Democratic agenda, vowing to block House Democrats’ bills on everything from the Equal Pay Act to lowering prescription drugs to campaign finance reform.

But even if Democrats want to see McConnell taken out of power, they think the way to do it is to flip the entire Senate majority from red to blue, rather than attempting to topple McConnell in Kentucky. National Democrats admit they’d rather divert money toward Senate races they actually see as competitive for Democrats, like North Carolina, Colorado, Arizona, and Maine, rather than shoveling it toward a race in an extremely red state where the incumbent’s war chest will be massive.

McGrath will certainly help drive Democratic messaging about McConnell in a pivotal election year. But whether she can win Kentucky’s Senate seat is less certain.

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