A fighter pilot and a $100m battle: Inside the campaign to unseat Trump’s ‘Enabler-in-Chief’

Andrew Buncombe
·8-min read
Democrats are banking on Amy McGrath to unseat Mitch McConnell (Getty)
Democrats are banking on Amy McGrath to unseat Mitch McConnell (Getty)

Amy McGrath says it as she sees it. As someone who served in the military, she likes to have a plan. And she does not believe Mitch McConnell, the six-term senator from Kentucky and perhaps the most powerful Republican in the nation, has a plan to do anything other than help the wealthy donors who have supported him all these years.

“This isn’t about red or blue, conservative or liberal, or left to right, or any of that stuff. Let’s have a plan to get our country back on track,” she says.

“And I always say to people when they say ‘Hey, Amy, I just want to get back to normal’… normalcy is what got us the 200,000-plus Americans dead in nine months. Normal is what got us to 25 million Americans demonstrating in the streets demanding racial justice, saying, hey, things aren’t right and they haven’t been right for a long time. We must change. That’s what normal got us. We can’t go back to that – we have to do better.”

She adds: “And does anybody think Washington DC can change unless we change the people we send there? That’s what this is about. All of this happened on his watch – 36 years.”

Kentucky is known for lots of things – for its bourbon and horse racing, a history of sitting on the cusp of the north/south divide, and – despite very wealthy neighbourhoods in cities such as Louisville and Lexington, scoring poorly when it comes to education and inequality. It scores far too high on markers such as unemployment and opioid addiction.

This year, it will also be remembered for something else – the most expensive Senate race in a very long time. By the time election day hits, between them the two sides will have raised and spent more close to $100m, the vast bulk of that money coming from outside the state.

Ms McGrath is currently trailing her opponent by double digitsAndrew Buncombe
Ms McGrath is currently trailing her opponent by double digitsAndrew Buncombe

Democrats have not held a Senate seat in Kentucky for more than two decades, and six of its seven congressional districts are Republican. In 2016, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton here by 62% to 32%.

Yet, Democrats have held the governor’s mansion several times. The current governor, Andy Beshear, elected last year, is a Democrat, as was his father, former governor Steve Beshear, and in Ms McGrath some Democrats believe they have their best chance in 40 years of wining the spot occupied by Mr McConnell, the powerful Republican leader in the Senate. If she did win, she would be the first woman senator from either party to represent the state.

“He’s got a real fight this time,” said Brenda Abell, 69, a retired postal worker, who was at the Bardstown Country Club, the venue for one of several events Ms McGrath held this week. “She is a real fighter. And that is the person we need.”

Ms McGrath’s resume is certainly impressive. A mother of three children whose husband is Republican, she is a former US marine fighter pilot, and the first woman to fly a combat mission for the corps. She joined politics with a bid for Kentucky’s 7th congressional district, seeking to oust Republican incumbent Andy Barr. The November 2018 contest between the two was close, with Mr Barr holding on 51-48.

Ms McGrath,  45, entered this year’s Democratic primary to select a challenger to Mr McConnell as the clear front-runner, endorsed by the likes of Senator Chuck Schumer, the most senior Democrat in the Senate.

As it was, she faced a strong challenge from a progressive African-American state legislator, Charles Booker, who was backed by the likes of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. At one point during the campaign, Mr Booker, who launched the “Hood to the Holler” advocacy group to link different coalitions of working people, accused Ms McGrath of flip-flopping.

“I don’t really know what position Amy McGrath takes because she goes back and forth on everything depending on what consultants seem to say,” he told Politico. “I know that Kentuckians can smell BS from miles away.”

Mr Booker has since endorsed Ms McGrath, albeit in a statement that was barbed.

“While Amy has the pressing challenge of responding to the cries of the people and standing against big money interests, I know that a vote for Amy McGrath gives us the very real chance to push for greater accountability in a Senate no longer shut down by Mitch,” he said.

The reason for all the big money flowing into Kentucky from establishment Democrats is simple: there is perhaps nobody more despised among Democrats than the 78-year-old Mr McConnell, dubbed Trump’s Enabler-in-Chief.

While there is much loathing among Democrats of Mr Trump, many consider Mr McConnell has abrogated the traditions and constitutional duties of the Senate in order to make things easy for the president. His obstructionism during Barack Obama’s last two years is well remembered, as is the way he declined to consider the Democrats’ candidate for the Supreme Court in an election year, Merrick Garland, but is now rushing to appoint Amy Coney Barrett

“I think in some ways, Mitch McConnell might be ahead of Donald Trump [in terms of being disliked], just because Donald Trump does not understand how government work and Mitch McConnell does,” said Christina Greer, a professor of political science at New York’s Fordham University.

Few Republicans trigger more loathing among Democrats than Mr McConnellAFP/Getty
Few Republicans trigger more loathing among Democrats than Mr McConnellAFP/Getty

“So Trump’s behaviour is erratic and self-serving. Mitch McConnell is deliberate and very calculated, because he fundamentally does understand how Congress works and what he is doing to the American people.”

Yet will the Democrats’ dislike of her opponent be sufficient for Ms McGrath, who will need all the help she can get? For all her apparent strengths as a candidate, the most recent poll by Quinnipiac University put her 12 points behind Mr McConnell at 53-41, and suggests his lead is growing and not closing.

Ms McGrath’s task is made more difficult by the fact that Mr Trump remains popular in Kentucky, considerably more so than Mr McConnell. While the two men may not like each other, Mr McConnell is more than happy to ride on the president’s coat tails

Such has been the fine line Ms McGrath has to walk in terms of trying to secure the votes of people who may support the president, she often stressed she would work with him on issues that affected Kentuckians.

During her speech at the golf club she even got a laugh when she said Mr McConnell’s healthcare plan was so bad “even Donald Trump called it mean”.

At the same time, she is not slow to criticise the president where she thinks he has done wrong. To a question from The Independent on how she would repair the damage critics of Mr Trump say he has done to the nation’s image internationally, she said: “What I would do is call all the allies, allies that I fought with in places like Afghanistan. And I would repair the damage that has been done. We have not treated our allies well. And I’m not sure that we fully understand the impacts of that.”

All in all, it remains a tough battle, and it may be Democrats looking to flip seats in order to retake control of the Senate will have more luck in places such as Maine and Arizona.

“You know, it’s just tough for her,” said Dewey Clayton, a professor of political science at the University of Louisville.

“One thing she’s had that many competitors against McConnell haven’t had over the years, is that she has been well financed. Every time McConnell has an ad on, she follows up with one as well. And usually, McConnell has an advantage because he has more money.”

Ms McGrath discussed the fight on her hands with a military veteran who was among the two-dozen masked and socially distanced voters that turned out to see her at the golf club. Don Moore, 86, also served in the Marines and Vietnam at the time of the 1968 Tet Offensive, a major escalation of the war.

Ms McGrath bumped elbows with Mr Moore, thanked him for his service. At the golf club, and then later at a speech before teachers and educators that evening in Lexington, she laid out her plan to close the gap between her and her opponent.

“For me it’s always about country over party. It’s always about getting things done. I think that’s the only way we can move forward here in Kentucky,” she said.

“But I need you to step up for the next 28 days, do whatever you can. Make phone calls, do text banking. Get on social media and duke it out. Whatever it is you like to do. Have those conversations with your in-laws before Thanksgiving.”

She added: “Because this is so important do something, every single day for the next 28 days. This election is the most important election of our lifetime.”

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