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A Clash of Experiences in Kentucky’s 6th District Democratic Primary

McGrath and Gray tout their backgrounds ahead of Tuesday primary

Tim Armstrong, the chief executive officer of Oath and former U.S. Marine and congressional candidate in Kentucky Amy McGrath speak onstage during The 2018 MAKERS Conference at NeueHouse Hollywood on February 6, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for MAKERS)
Tim Armstrong, the chief executive officer of Oath and former U.S. Marine and congressional candidate in Kentucky Amy McGrath speak onstage during The 2018 MAKERS Conference at NeueHouse Hollywood on February 6, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for MAKERS)

Even a casual observer of politics has probably heard of Amy McGrath. 

The retired Marine fighter pilot made a splash last year with an introductory video about the letters she wrote to members of Congress asking them to change the law so that women could fly in combat.

The video went viral and helped her raise more than double Kentucky GOP Rep. Andy Barr during the third quarter of 2017. She’s been profiled by the national media as one of the female veterans helping shaking up politics this cycle.

But for most of the campaign, she’s run without the backing of many in the Democratic apparatus who have championed female recruits. She supports abortion rights but hasn’t sought the endorsement of EMILY’s List, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recruited someone else to run against her.

McGrath’s biggest political test so far is on Tuesday, when she’ll face off against Lexington Mayor Jim Gray (and four other candidates) for the Democratic nomination in Kentucky’s 6th District. Gray, the 2016 Democratic Senate nominee, entered the race in December — four months after McGrath — with encouragement from the DCCC.

The race has turned into a contest of different experiences.

McGrath’s campaign paints Gray as a longtime politician who’s the establishment pick in the race. But in a Monday night debate, it was Gray, who’s running on his experience as mayor, who committed to voting against Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for leader. 

McGrath’s answer: “I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to say because I don’t know who’s running.” 

In a district President Donald Trump carried by 15 points in 2016, where Barr won a third term by 22 points, either candidate could be in for a tough race. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Lean Republican, but Democrats regard it as a top pick-up opportunity heading into the summer and both candidates are eager to run against Barr’s vote for repealing the 2010 health care law. 

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Where it stands

The latest polling released of the race came from McGrath’s campaign in April, and it showed her closing a big gap. 

She led Gray 42 to 35 percent in a Garin-Hart-Yang survey of 404 likely Democratic primary voters conducted April 17-19. Fourteen percent was undecided. The margin of error was plus or minus 5 percentage points. In an internal poll from December, McGrath trailed Gray 18 to 63 percent. 

Gray’s campaign hasn’t released numbers since early April, when it publicized the results of a poll conducted a month earlier. It showed Gray ahead with 52 percent and McGrath at 19 percent. The Mellman Group conducted the survey of 400 likely Democratic primary voters March 3-6. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, seen here campaigning for Senate in 2016, is running for the Democratic nod in the 6th District on Tuesday against retired Marine pilot Amy McGrath. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, seen here campaigning for Senate in 2016, is running for the Democratic nod in the 6th District on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

McGrath outraised Gray during the pre-primary reporting period that ended on May 2, but Gray still had a cash advantage. McGrath raised $238,000 and ended with $302,000 in the bank. Gray raised $191,000 and ended with $436,000. Barr ended the period with $2.3 million.

Despite encouraging Gray to run, the DCCC never put him on Red to Blue, its list of strong recruits. And a recent donation to McGrath from the leadership PAC of Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos — a member of Democratic leadership — suggests the party may now be more open to McGrath.

She’s already received support from New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, who’s included McGrath in his Serve America Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee. McGrath’s campaign has touted the backing of Moulton — who’s opposed Pelosi for leader — to underscore its generational change message. Vote Vets has also backed McGrath.

Gray secured the endorsement of the Lexington Herald Leader last week and the United Steel Workers last month. 

Who’s the establishment? 

McGrath’s argument is that Congress is already full of longtime politicians and businessmen. 

Many of her ads, produced by veteran ad maker Mark Putnam, focus on her combat experience — she was the first female Marine pilot to fly into combat in an F-18 — and as a woman who fought for a place in a man’s world. One of her most recent spots strikes a slightly different tone, showcasing her role as a mother with a runaway bare-bottomed toddler in the doctor’s office.

One of the biggest attacks on McGrath is that she’s an outsider, which is both a knock on her and her fundraising. (Her campaign says it had to raise money elsewhere because Gray locked up all the Democratic money in state.) McGrath only moved to the district after retiring from the Marine Corps in 2017. She grew up in northern Kentucky.

After serving three combat tours, McGrath worked on Capitol Hill as a fellow in the office of California Rep. Susan Davis. She then worked at the Pentagon and later taught at her alma mater, the Naval Academy, before returning to the Bluegrass State.

In a recent debate, one of her opponents asked her to name the counties where certain Kentucky towns are. She had an answer ready that highlighted her experience.

“Look, the fact is that I served my country, okay. I can’t do both. I can’t live here for 20 years and also be a United States Marine, serving the people of Kentucky,” McGrath said, according to the Lexington Herald Leader

Gray is highlighting his successes as mayor and his willingness to take on Washington, especially money in politics. One of his latest ads spotlights his efforts on the opioid crisis. His team argues he’s the more electable given his deep connections to the district. 

Having run for Senate and held local office, Gray started with high favorable ratings and name identification. Although he lost to GOP Sen. Rand Paul statewide, he carried the 6th District in 2016. He also has his own money he could bring to the race, although he’s yet to make a loan to his campaign.

 “When Gray got in this race it was pretty daunting,” McGrath campaign manager Mark Nickolas said this week. 

But Nickolas said not being the candidate the DCCC at first wanted allowed McGrath’s campaign to experiment with an early field effort. 

 “Actually not having the DCCC was liberating in some ways. [There was] nobody to crack down us,” Nickolas said.

The DCCC’s efforts to get Gray in the race also provided McGrath’s team with a convenient message.

 “We’re running against the actual establishment — the mayor of the big city who got pushed into the race by the national Democratic leadership.”

Gray’s team disputes the narrative that anyone pushed him into the race. His impetus for running, campaign manager Jamie Emmons said this week, was seeing successes in Lexington and wanting to try to bring them to the federal level. 

“Lexington was on the right track, the country was not,” Emmons said of Gray’s rationale for seeking the nomination. 

Had Gray won his Senate race in 2016, he would have been the first openly gay man to serve in the chamber, a fact that mostly went unnoticed during that campaign

The Herald Leader called attention to Gray’s sexual identity in its endorsement for the 6th District primary: “To marvel at how far we’ve come, consider: One of the first openly gay Kentuckians to win public office is now knocked as ‘establishment.’”

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