Retired Marine Lt. Col. Amy McGrath could be a test case of exactly what kind of Democrat will be competitive in the 2018 midterms.
McGrath is a Marine Corps veteran and a political newcomer running for the Democratic nomination in Kentucky’s Sixth Congressional District. She’s making a bet that her anti-establishment brand will carry her to Washington in an election year that’s shaping up to be a Democratic wave.
“We have to have a new generation of leaders,” McGrath told Vox in a recent interview. “We have to get back to talking to the working and middle class; we have to have more women.”
McGrath, a native Kentuckian, launched her campaign for Congress this summer with a viral video that highlighted her 20 years of military service. The video helped her raise more than $800,000 in campaign contributions from 16,000 individual donors — a strong sign of grassroots energy propelling her.
McGrath is eyeing the seat currently occupied by Rep. Andy Barr, a Republican. But first, she must win a tough Democratic primary in May.
She’s up against Kentucky state Sen. Reggie Thomas and Lexington Mayor Jim Gray. Gray has more name recognition and considerably more money; he is a former businessman and well-known player in Kentucky politics who ran an unsuccessful 2016 Senate campaign against Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), spending $2.5 million of his own money in the effort. But Gray also entered the congressional race later than expected, announcing his bid in December.
The financial contrast between Gray and McGrath has become a crucial narrative of her campaign.
“Recruiting the same types of big-city, older millionaires is not the future,” McGrath said. “Especially in the Democratic Party, we cannot keep relying on a staple of rich white people, old men, to save the Democratic Party.”
The primary for the Kentucky Sixth essentially boils down to an intraparty debate about how Democrats can best compete in rural, red-leaning districts. It’s made up of the solidly blue city of Lexington, plus 18 other rural counties that lean conservative. The Sixth District has nearly 100,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, but it’s voted solidly red in numerous past elections. Many counties in the Sixth overwhelmingly voted for Trump in 2016, and the Cook Political Report rates the district R+9. Still, Democrats have won in the past; Democratic Rep. Ben Chandler was elected in 2004 and 2010, but was defeated by Barr in 2012.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee reportedly urged the Lexington mayor to enter the race, despite saying they want to recruit more first-time, female candidates to run in 2018. Gray’s campaign has pushed back on these claims, telling the Lexington Herald-Leader he entered the race after being encouraged by locals.
The DCCC declined to comment on the record, but one official said the organization believes Gray is more well-positioned to win against Barr.
McGrath calls Gray a “strong Democrat” and says she aligns with him on most policy issues, but she’s also frustrated by a dynamic she characterizes as her party not learning its lesson from 2016.
“In the rural areas, many, many people feel left out and left behind by our country. They feel that the Democratic Party is being led by New York City and San Francisco, and they don’t see any leadership in the Democratic Party that speaks to them. That’s where the disconnect is,” McGrath said.
Here is my full conversation with McGrath, edited for length and clarity.
What inspired you to run this year?
Well, for me, take it back to 2016 — not only who we elected in the presidency, but the whole election cycle. The fake news, the divisiveness, the personal attacks, the lies. Everything associated with the election disturbed me as an American. For somebody who served my country for 24 years, 20 years as a Marine Corps officer, and the American values I fought for overseas, it was just too hard for me to take anymore.
My last assignment was teaching at the US Naval Academy. I was teaching midshipmen, and here I was teaching them government, and teaching them elections. Trying to explain to them they are representing a country that is a democracy, that is led by people of integrity and courage. How was I going to explain the 2016 elections to them? That ultimately was what made me decide, I want to continue my public service to this country, but I want to continue it in a different way. And that’s running for political office because we need better leaders.
The when came later. I think it was the elections that made me determine, “This is what I’m going to do.” And then the when was during the spring, when the Republicans, who now own the House and the Senate and the presidency, were starting to immediately push through the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and to do it in a way that was completely politically motivated.
Why? Because they didn’t have a replacement plan. It was clear what they were doing was totally wrong for people, and hurting people. And I felt, “Okay, I’ve got to stand up, and I’ve got to do it now.”
I often got the question, “Why don’t you wait 10 years and build yourself up?” I’m like, “We need better leaders now!” My god, think about what’s going on from a national security perspective right now. We need people in Congress that understand national security, now. That’s something that I have.
It sounds like you’re getting some questions about why you’re running now, why not take a little bit of time. You are new to politics; I’m curious what you think the advantages of being new to politics are, and also some of the challenges.
For as many questions that I get that are that type of question, there are 10 others who come up to me and say, “Thank god you’re running.” One of the advantages is that people are fed up with the current political system.
I mean, it’s no secret that we have been divided as a nation, that our politics is polarized, that standard politicians are not looked upon favorably, Congress has a terrible approval rating. When you have a fresh face, somebody who’s not steeped in longstanding politics, somebody who doesn’t have the baggage of internal politics — especially here in Kentucky — those things are real advantages. You can also connect with people a little bit more.
Look, standard politicians tend to be very wealthy, they tend to be millionaires, they tend to be close to special interests, and I’m not any of those things. I’m just somebody who served her country. And I’m dealing with a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old in the morning, and people get that!
There’s been some talk about the DCCC encouraging your opponent [Lexington Mayor Jim Gray] to run. I wanted to get your perspective on the Democratic Party trying to recruit these more establishment candidates like Jim Gray during this year where there’s certainly been a lot of anti-establishment candidates out there as well.
It’s disappointing to me that they would do that, especially after the talk of them wanting more veterans and more women, and more first-time candidates. To have done that, it kind of shows you the real disconnect between the national Democratic Party and places like Kentucky. And the key is, we have forgotten, as a party, how to win the Midwest and the South.
We have to go outside the cities; we have to go into the counties. We have to go into local newspapers and radio and connect with the middle class. Recruiting the same types of big-city, older millionaires is not the future. We have to have a new generation of leaders. Especially in the Democratic Party, we cannot keep relying on a staple of rich white people, old men, to save the Democratic Party. We have to get back to talking to the working and middle class; we have to have more women.
We have to have people that are change agents, and that’s the difference between myself and the other two candidates in the primary, really. They’re both good politicians; they’re both strong Democrats. We probably align on 90 percent of the issues.
But who’s going to be the change agent? Who is going to be in that new generation of leadership that’s going to be able to cut through the divisiveness in our country? That’s what I want to do; I’m not beholden to a political party. I served the country my entire adult life, and while I’m aligned with the political party, I’m not beholden to it. Country first.
The other big thing: I believe money in politics is so corrosive in our country. It is such a cancer; we have to have change agents on both sides to change the money in politics issue.
You can’t continue to elect self-funded millionaires. They’re not likely to change that part of politics, and I just think that is so important. You have to elect people who run with the help of people, not with the help of special interests, not with the help of their own pocketbook, their own checkbook.
I have 16,000 donors right now — 13,000 of them are $50 or less. That’s democracy.
When you started seeing those fundraising numbers rolling in, what was your reaction? Were you surprised at all?
Yeah, I was surprised. I didn’t expect this; I didn’t know anything about politics. People had told me the money thing was going to be so hard, and it is hard. What it shows, though, and again, it’s not about me. People are hungry for candidates who are fresh faces, who have a solid background of serving their country, who can literally raise the bullshit flag on what’s going on right now. And people want to back them, because they see hope. I’m tired of the standard politicians, I’m tired of the lies.
Folks like Seth Moulton, Kirsten Gillibrand, they have been supportive of me from day one, because they are the future of our party; they see the same things I do. We’ve got to have younger leaders who are change agents, who are a new generation for our country.
When you spoke about the disconnect between the Democratic Party and what you’re seeing in Kentucky, I’m wondering what you are seeing on the campaign trail and what you think the source of that disconnect is.
Well, there is a fairly large rural-urban divide, as we know. In the rural areas, many, many people feel left out and left behind by our country. They feel that the Democratic Party is being led by New York City and San Francisco, and they don’t see any leadership in the Democratic Party that speaks to them. That’s where the disconnect is.
They also see that a lot of the Democratic candidates that keep being nominated in these areas are, like I said, from the cities: your millionaires, your older types, who aren’t really connecting to those people out there. I think that’s a big issue.
People are tired of the divisiveness, and they’re tired of feeling like the government doesn’t care about them anymore. And that’s why we have to get out there and talk to them. People want to know whether you share their values or not, whether they can relate to you or not.
[In] your district, there’s the city of Lexington that’s blue, and then there are rural areas where there is a fair amount of people that are registered as Democrats but voted for Trump. Do you think you can capture those voters? How are you going to do that?
I do think I can capture those voters. For one, maybe they voted for Trump, but they haven’t registered as Republicans; many of them are Democrats. We have, in fact, in this district, more Democrats registered than we do Republicans. We can’t forget that. They’ve stayed Democrats for a reason. Eighteen of the 19 counties in this district have more Democrats than Republicans.
About a month ago, I went down to Anderson County, a county south of Fayette County here. It’s a county that Trump won by 49 points. I sat down with the small-town newspaper and the conservative editor, and he interviewed me for two and a half hours. And at the end of the interview, I went back and there was a story written a week later, and I’ve got to tell you, it’s the best story written about me since I launched the campaign. Better than the Huffington Post; it was awesome. This is a county that Trump won by 49 points.
People are hungry for a candidate on the Democratic side that can talk to them, that can connect with them. When I walked out of his office, one of the last things he said to me is, “The other primary candidates never come down here. They never bother. They just write us off.”
That’s the thing — people don’t want to be written off. Don’t write them off, don’t look at them as a number and say, we can’t ever win this, so we can’t go there. That’s what kills us as Democrats. A lot of these folks, they don’t expect you to solve all their problems. They just want to be heard; they just want somebody to hear them.
On policy, I wanted to ask what you’re focusing on. I’ve read your platform and watched other interviews, and it sounds like health care is a really big focus. Are you planning to focus more on issues like health care and the economy and your foreign policy background as opposed to social issues?
The focus is not on the social issues. I’m very upfront and very transparent on how I stand and why, but I often tell voters and people: What are the issues that affect your daily life? What are the issues that affect you on a daily basis, on a weekly basis? Those are things like health care, those are things like the economy.
I hate to use the word the “economy.” The economy works for some and it doesn’t work for others. It’s really a good-paying job where you can support your family, where you can feel like you’re progressing as an American. Those are the types of things that people really care about.
Of course, foreign policy and defense policy, because that’s my background and I have some credibility there. I believe deeply that we need members of Congress that have more credibility in that area, and that’s one of the major problems happening in our country right now.
And then it’s more old-school. I always have to remember that I want to make sure I’m representing people. At the end of the day, I’ve got to listen, and I want to be a representative of the people here. It’s definitely not anti-Trump; it’s just what people care about day to day around here.
Do you feel your focus is going to be more on policy, rather than talking about Trump?
Absolutely — I have to be cognizant of the fact that many people voted for Trump. I’m not running against him. However, what I am running on is the fact I think we need a member of Congress that can stand up, have the moral courage to stand up to a president of his or her own party when they are completely out of line.
That is something that is shockingly apparent right now with members of Congress who are Republicans. I think right now we have too many members of Congress who are just being silent when they know our president is doing some really bad things. I don’t want to be one of those people.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the last time a Democrat was elected to Congress in Kentucky’s Sixth District. It was 2010, not 2004.