Mitch McConnell Gets A Challenger For 2020

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has a challenger. Much like 2014, though, it's far too early to start writing his political obituary.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is up for re-election in 2020, and as he did in 2014, he’s facing another challenger that is likely to get significant national attention and support from Democrats across the country:

WASHINGTON — Amy McGrath, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and combat pilot whose star power in the Democratic Party in 2018 failed to capture her a House seat in Kentucky, announced Tuesday that she would seek to challenge Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader, in 2020.

Ms. McGrath, 44, made her intentions known with a dark videodenouncing Mr. McConnell, 77, who was first elected to the Senate in 1984 and has served as the central ballast for President Trump in Washington.

“Everything that’s wrong in Washington had to start someplace,” Ms. McGrath said in the video. “It started with this man who was elected a lifetime ago, and who has, bit by bit, year by year, turned Washington into something we all despise.”

She also reprised a story she used in her 2018 campaign against Representative Andy Barr, recounting that as a young woman she wrote to Mr. McConnell “telling him I wanted to fly fighter jets in combat, to fight for my country, and that women should be able to do that,” and noting that he never wrote back

“The same reasons I decided to run in 2018 are still there,” Ms. McGrath said in an interview Tuesday afternoon. “My childhood dream was never to be a politician,” she said, but she and her husband “kind of looked at each other said we need better leaders in this country.”

Mr. McConnell is in some ways as loathed by Democrats as Mr. Trump. And he has arguably been more effective, maintaining a stronghold over the nation’s judiciary and largely refusing to cooperate with Democrats on major legislation.

In light of that, Ms. McGrath has adopted an unusual strategy for a Democrat: She is blaming Mr. McConnell for blocking legislation and cultural changes in Washington sought by Mr. Trump.

“Kentuckians voted for Donald Trump because they wanted to drain the swamp and lower prescription drug prices,” she said. “A lot of what has stood in the way of what Donald Trump promised is Senator McConnell.”

Mr. Trump commented on Ms. McGrath’s entry into the race Tuesday evening, writing on Twitter, “Why would Kentucky ever think of giving up the most powerful position in Congress, the Senate Majority Leader, for a freshman Senator with little power in what will hopefully be the minority party.”

Mr. McConnell’s re-election team had been anticipating Ms. McGrath’s announcement for months. On Tuesday, he responded with his own video that highlighted her support for priorities like abortion rights and a single-payer health care system — positions Mr. McConnell believes will be unpopular in 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,” Kevin Golden, Mr. McConnell’s campaign manager, said in a statement.

He said Ms. McGrath would have “a heckuva platform that we will be delighted to discuss over the next 16 months.”

Ms. McGrath’s decision to take on Mr. McConnell in a state that is generally not propitious for Democrats reflects the party’s enduring faith in military veterans, whose career paths and inspiring back stories can help blunt associations with its more liberal proclivities, and who also tend to be fund-raising juggernauts.

In the first three months of 2019, among the 28 freshman House Democrats who raised more than $400,000, several were veterans, including Representative Max Rose, Democrat of New York, who raised a head-turning $800,000.

When asked if her race would be expensive, Ms. McGrath said, somewhat forlornly, “I imagine it will.” But she added: “Ninety percent of my donations in the last race were $50 or less. The vet who is handing me $20 is not handing me draft legislation along with it.”

But no matter how much money Ms. McGrath may raise from Democrats across the country eager to dispatch Mr. McConnell, she will still face a formidable challenge.

Mr. McConnell, Kentucky’s longest serving senator, is “one of the most powerful political machines that’s ever existed,” said Jon Soltz, an Iraq War veteran and co-founder of VoteVets.org, a liberal political action committee that supports veterans running for office.

“It takes someone with a compelling, nonpolitical profile to break through that,” Mr. Soltz said. “When you talk about Amy McGrath, you’re talking about someone who has the credibility, with her profile, to reach people outside the Democratic base, independents, even Republicans. That’s what will break the McConnell machine.”

More from Politico:

Amy McGrath, a Kentucky Democrat and former fighter pilot who lost a House race last year, said Tuesday she’s running for Senate against Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in what could be one of 2020’s most expensive races.

The 44-year-old former fighter pilot is a major recruit for Democrats, but she faces a seriously uphill challenge against the Kentucky Republican, who was first elected to the Senate in 1984 and has been party’s Senate leader since 2007.

McGrath told POLITICO in an interview Tuesday afternoon that she learned lessons from her first run for office and expected a different result in 2020 despite running in a state that is significantly more Republican than the congressional district she lost.

“I do think this race is winnable, even though it’s a red state,” McGrath said.

McConnell won his last race in 2014 by 15 percentage points, and President Donald Trump carried Kentucky by nearly 30 points in 2016. But Democrats hope McGrath, who pulled in more than $8 million for her House race in 2018 and has a proven online fundraising base, will be able to raise the money and has a profile that will make her competitive against McConnell. GOP Rep. Andy Barr defeated McGrath last year, 51 percent to 48 percent, in a district Trump won by 15 percentage points in 2016.

“Everything that’s wrong with Washington had to start someplace,” she said in a video launching her campaign.

McConnell brushed aside any concern about the race.

“It will be a spirited race,” McConnell said. “Particularly since I’ve become leader of my party in the Senate I’ve noticed I get more attention than I used to. And I look forward to the contest and laying out our differences to the people of Kentucky.”

Democrats believe McConnell may be vulnerable because polling consistently shows him to be deeply unpopular in his home state, even among Republicans. But McGrath faces a tricky path to making the race competitive: Trump is expected to win convincingly in Kentucky, a state where he remains popular, and McConnell is likely to run on having achieved results for Trump’s agenda.

McGrath attempted to create space between the two Republicans during her launch, leaning on Trump’s 2016 promise to “drain the swamp.”

“Who is the epitome of the swamp? Mitch McConnell,” McGrath said. “I think many Kentuckians recognize that. That’s my approach.”

Allies to McConnell view the approach as laughable.

“I find it a curious strategy, especially when you consider that if she sticks with it, Trump himself is going to show up in this race and say, ‘She’s full of crap. Nobody does more to help me than Mitch,'” said Scott Jennings, a GOP strategist and adviser to McConnell.

Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) said he thought the race was winnable for McGrath and argued massive attention on the Senate contest could actually help McGrath separate the two Republicans and mitigate the effect of Trump at top of the ticket. But he said McGrath needs to walk a fine line between criticizing McConnell and appearing to be supportive of Trump.

“I think she needs to be more careful to make sure she adds, ‘I don’t support the Trump agenda.’ But for those Trump supporters who think about voting for Mitch, he’s the reason you’re not getting what you promised,” Yarmuth said in an interview.

Republicans are also likely to paint McGrath as the choice of national Democrats and tie her to the presidential field in the hopes of turning off Trump supporters. McGrath immediately tried to separate herself from the 2020 Democratic presidential field, calling herself a “moderate” on MSNBC and saying she thought many of the presidential candidates were “pulling a little too far to the left” during the presidential debates.

But more than a half-dozen of those candidates tweeted out support for McGrath or shared her launch video. McGrath acknowledged those endorsements weren’t necessarily helpful in Kentucky but pointed out that she defeated a Democrat backed by the national party in a primary in 2018.

Here are the videos posted by McGrath and McConnell respectively:

In

In one measure of the interest that Democrats are likely to have in this campaign, McGrath campaign reported that they raised $2.5 million on her first day in the race:

Amy McGrath, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and combat pilot who is seeking to unseat Senator Mitch McConnell in 2020, raised $2.5 million in the first 24 hours of her campaign, her campaign manager said Wednesday.

The fund-raising haul eclipsed the first-day totals raised by some heavyweight contenders in the presidential race, including Senators Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren. It suggests that Ms. McGrath retains some of the star power she harnessed during her failed bid last year to capture a House seat in Kentucky.

It is also an indication of just how badly Democrats want to oust Mr. McConnell, the Senate majority leader.

In a brief telephone interview on Wednesday morning, Mark Nickolas, Ms. McGrath’s campaign manager, said the $2.5 million she raised was the most ever in the first 24 hours of a Senate campaign. The donations came from roughly 69,000 donors who contributed an average of about $36 each, he said.

A spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee confirmed that Ms. McGrath’s first-day total was believed to be a record. The former astronaut Mark Kelly raised $1 million during the first day of his Senate campaign in Arizona earlier this year.

Of course, the McGrath will need all the money she can get because she’s going up against someone whose fundraising abilities are legendary:

Mr. McConnell’s fund-raising prowess is also formidable. In his 2014 re-election campaign, he spent more than $30 million and won by more than 15 percentage points. Mr. McConnell’s team has already raised $11.2 million this cycle and currently has $7.9 million on hand, the campaign said Wednesday.

“It looks like it’ll be a long campaign,” Mr. Nickolas said.

Perry Bacon Jr. at Insider Louisville outlines the difficulties McGrath faces in a race against McConnell:

McGrath is a long shot largely because of the same broader political dynamics that hurt her last year. The state of Kentucky is considerably more conservative than the Lexington-area district that she just lost in (Romney won in Kentucky by 23 percentage points in 2012Trump by 30 points in 2016).

To win this race, McGrath will likely need a fairly large bloc of people who are voting for Trump for president to then cross party lines and vote for her in the Senate race. 

That kind of ticket-splitting doesn’t usually happen.

In 2016, as FiveThirtyEight explained, “every state that elected a Republican candidate for Senate voted for Trump, and every state that elected a Democratic Senate candidate voted for Clinton.” (Gubernatorial elections don’t have this same kind of partisanship pattern, which is why Andy Beshear is not a long shot in his gubernatorial campaign against Matt Bevin.) 

Also, McConnell’s bad poll numbers may not tell us much. He was also very unpopular in the run-up to the 2014 elections. But McConnell painted his opponent, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Grimes, as too liberal and out of touch with the conservatism of the state. McConnell likely will employ the same strategy for this race. He may also have the president campaign for him, which would be a boon in this state. 

In going up against McConnell, McGrath is taking on one of the most successful politicians in Kentucky history. After narrowly defeating Democratic Senator Walter Huddleston in 1984, McConnell has gone on to decisively win re-election handily five times in 1990, 1996, 2002, 2008, and 2014, each time by a healthy margin. Five years ago, when he faced what many Democrats hoped would be a strong challenge from Alison Lundergren Grimes, who had been elected statewide herself, McConnell went on to win by 16 percentage points, one of the largest margins of his political career.

All of this is happening in a state that has become increasingly Republican throughout McConnell’s political career. While the state has had its share of Democratic statewide politicians as Governor and in other statewide positions, it has not voted for a Democratic Senator since Wendell Ford was re-elected for his final term in 1992. Similarly, the state has not given its Electoral Votes to a Democrat since Bill Clinton won the state in 1996. In 2016, President Trump won the state by roughly 600,000 votes and it seems likely that he will do similarly well in 2020.

As Perry Bacon notes in the post quoted above, McGrath essentially needs a what would amount to a perfect political storm to occur in Kentucky, typically a conservative with a small “c” in that it is not given to radical political shifts from election to election. This would include the President become far less popular in the Bluegrass State than he is today, something that seems unlikely absent a painful economic downturn. Alternatively, she would need to find a way to convince otherwise conservative voters to split their ticket between Trump and the Senate race, which is not typical for the state. Part of this appeal would involve her using her status as a Marine veteran to attract Trump voters. As Bacon puts it, while events such as these seem like they are possible, none of them seems very likely. Given that, and given McConnell’s own history of political survival and his knowledge of Kentucky politics, McGrath has a difficult task ahead of her if she’s going to come any closer to defeating him than any of his past five opponents have.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020, Congress, US Politics, , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. MarkedMan says:

    Is Kentucky a Southern state or a Midwestern one? A slave state or a free one (remember, they were “neutral” in the Civil War)? A Trump state or a decent one?

    Mitch McConnell has been their Senator for 34 years. I guess that answers that…

  2. Kylopod says:

    That kind of ticket-splitting doesn’t usually happen.

    In 2016, as FiveThirtyEight explained, “every state that elected a Republican candidate for Senate voted for Trump, and every state that elected a Democratic Senate candidate voted for Clinton.”

    That’s pretty massive cherry-picking. 2016 was in fact the first time this has ever happened. In previous presidential elections, there have been states that have voted for one party for president and the other for Senate. In 2012, five Romney states voted for a Democratic Senator, and one Obama state voted for a Republican (Dean Heller in Nevada).

  3. Teve says:

    ABP
    Block Element:

    |otb.cachefly.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Mitch-McConnell-1.png
    ||otb.cachefly.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Mitch-McConnell-1-768×432.png

    Ahhh, much better.

    (I reiterate my call for replacing all OP photos of Mitch McConnell and Jeffrey Epstein with either puppies, kittens, or ducklings, as a service to all mankind.)

  4. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @MarkedMan:

    “I find it a curious strategy, especially when you consider that if she sticks with it, Trump himself is going to show up in this race and say, ‘She’s full of crap. Nobody does more to help me than Mitch,’” said Scott Jennings, a GOP strategist and adviser to McConnell.

    An electorate that believes Trump deserves Mitch. Sad, but true.

  5. Scott F. says:

    McGrath’s presence in the race will bring greater attention to McConnell. Every day spent pointing out how McConnell is a vile swamp monster is a good day for the country. “Everything that’s wrong with Washington had to start somewhere – it started with him.” is a good line, not only for McGrath but for any Democratic candidate working to take control of the Senate away from the Republicans.

    McConnell has tried his best to distance himself from Trump. Not in his home state necessarily, but nationally Trump is bad for the Republican brand. McGrath’s strategy will compel McConnell to wrap himself in Trump. As the House inquiries stir up examples of Trump malfeasance, leading eventually (as I suspect will happen) to impeachment hearings, the GOP that enables him can not be allowed to disassociate Trumpism from Republicanism.

    I think it highly unlikely that McGrath will defeat McConnell in Kentucky, but what matters most to the country is not that McConnell would no longer be a Senator, but that he would no longer be Majority Leader.

  6. Jen says:

    If she can raise enough money to keep McConnell busy in KY, that’s helpful right there.

  7. Neil Hudelson says:

    As Perry Bacon notes in the post quoted above, McGrath essentially needs a what would amount to a perfect political storm to occur in Kentucky, typically a conservative with a small “c” in that it is not given to radical political shifts from election to election. This would include the President become far less popular in the Bluegrass State than he is today, something that seems unlikely absent a painful economic downturn.

    If I’m not mistaken, Obamacare is fairly popular in the bluegrass state, thanks to a Dem governor rapidly implementing it. A federal case that removes a few million Kentuckians from insurance rolls, while a recession hits, would constitute a perfect storm.

    Even then, I don’t know if it will be enough. But it will definitely force the GOP to focus time, energy, and resources in an otherwise winnable state.

  8. Kylopod says:

    @Neil Hudelson: There was a poll around 2014 that found that, while a majority of Kentuckyans had a negative view of “Obamacare,” a plurality approved of the state-based exchange, kynect. Gov. Steve Beshear, who set up the exchange, explained in an interview that the best way to get people on the exchange was by not advertising the fact that it was Obamacare. I visited the website for kynect around the time it was created, and I found that nowhere did it mention Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act. In fact it made it sound like Beshear unilaterally set up the exchange without any involvement by the federal government. This is what the website said:

    Governor Steve Beshear issued an executive order to create a state-based health benefit exchange to best meet the needs of Kentuckians. kynect, like other health benefit exchanges, will provide simple, one-stop shopping for individuals and small businesses to purchase health insurance and receive payment assistance or tax credits.

    After Bevin entered office, he dismantled kynect, making it only available to businesses. Individuals can still access the federal exchange, so it didn’t have much practical impact on anyone’s health care. He’s also attempted to end the Medicaid expansion but so far has been stymied by the courts. This has all made him extremely unpopular. While it seems unlikely McGrath will unseat McConnell, Bevin could well lose the gubernatorial race this year to Democrat Andy Beshear, the former governor’s son and current Attorney General. Kentuckyans seem more willing to vote for Democratic governors than Democratic Senators. (In fact that’s generally true in politics: voters seem more willing to vote for governors of the opposite party than Senators.) Still, if McGrath is to have any shot at this, she should run on health care, or more specifically the Republican attempts to sabotage it.

    Kentucky is one of these poor, religious states that’s at the center of the coal industry, and Dems who win office there are usually economic populists who know how to strike culturally conservative themes.

  9. Jay L Gischer says:

    I for one am happy to have someone in the race pointing out all the things Trump promised that haven’t come to pass. Things like lower prescription drug prices. If Trump comes in and says “Mitch is my guy!” then he has to defend the fact that he didn’t lower prescription drug prices. He’ll try to blame it on Democrats, but I don’t think anyone but the true Trump Faithful is going to believe that.

    So, like @Scott_F. above, I think this will be good nationally.

  10. mattbernius says:

    I think Real Clear Politics Sean Trende’s take on this yesterday (via Twitter) is spot on:

    Twitter this week: Cory Gardner is toast. How can he win in that (D+1) state?

    Also Twitter this week: Amy McGrath’s race against Mitch in (R+15) Kentucky is going to be a marquee race!

    https://twitter.com/SeanTrende/status/1149014279800201216

    Unless something changes significantly in this race, I’m having a hard times seeing this even been a resource distraction for Republicans.

  11. Kylopod says:

    @mattbernius: The factor Trende neglects to mention is that McConnell is extremely unpopular. Of course, he was unpopular in 2014 and still managed to win reelection by a wide margin. So yes, the partisan lean of the state matters. But it may not be sufficient, if McGrath runs a really good campaign and all the right things fall into place.

  12. Teve says:

    @Jay L Gischer: drug stocks are up today because the administration just cancelled plans to do anything about lowering drug costs.

  13. David S. says:

    @Teve: If we never see their faces, how do we know what to punch?

  14. Neil Hudelson says:

    @mattbernius:

    I get what Sean is highlighting, but I understand the twitter-verse’s logic. If this election is a blue wave akin to 2018, a seat in a D+1 state is comparatively harder to hold than in a non-wave election, and a seat in an R+15 state is slightly more in play than normal. Sure, it’s very unlikely McConnell will lose, but I can’t fault the logic that says Gardner’s gonna have a tough fight, and that the Dem’s should be excited at McGrath’s entry.

  15. Mister Bluster says:

    Does she? Or doesn’t she?
    Amy McGrath flip-flops on Kavanaugh vote — in 1 day
    “I was asked earlier today about Judge Brett Kavanaugh and I answered based upon his qualifications to be on the Supreme Court. But upon further reflection and further understanding of his record, I would have voted no,” McGrath tweeted Wednesday evening.

  16. gVOR08 says:

    @Jen: Right. Every dollar they spend defending McConnell in KY is a dollar they can’t spend elsewhere.

  17. Hal_10000 says:

    I’m sure the Republicans would love to see Democratic donors blow tens of millions on another Beto-type race instead of spreading those funds out to races they could win.

  18. @Hal_10000:

    Democrats would be much better giving money to the likes of Mark Kelly in Arizona

  19. Jen says:

    There’s a psychology at play too–I’ve seen this in action. No matter how safe the seat, if an incumbent gets a challenger that generates press and can raise money, the incumbent starts getting antsy. It’s the whole “what if…” mentality.

    I’m glad she’s running (but boy that Kavanaugh gaffe, yeesh).