Amy McGrath says she will take on Mitch McConnell in 2020 US Senate race

Phillip M. Bailey, Joseph Gerth and Lucas Aulbach
Amy McGrath says she will take on Mitch McConnell in 2020 US Senate race

Kentucky Democrat Amy McGrath is suiting up to enter the 2020 U.S. Senate race against Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The former Marine fighter pilot ended months of speculation over whether she would make a run for one of the Bluegrass State’s top seats in Washington, making the announcement with a video posted to YouTube early Tuesday ahead of an appearance on MSNBC’s "Morning Joe."

In the video, McGrath says she wrote to McConnell when she was 13 telling him she wanted to fly combat jets and fight for the U.S. when she was an adult.

"He never wrote back," she says in the video. "I'm Amy McGrath, and I've often wondered, how many other people did Mitch McConnell never take the time to write back or even think about?"

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McGrath's name has been bounced around as a possible contender for the Democratic nomination since her failed 2018 attempt to knock off Rep. Andy Barr in Kentucky's 6th Congressional District.

The rumors continued to take shape when it was reported this year that Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, McConnell’s counterpart and chief adversary, was encouraging McGrath to run.

McGrath, a mother of three from Georgetown, Kentucky, has since been spotted at community events across the state and has regularly slammed McConnell on social media. Tuesday morning on MSNBC, she said Kentucky is ready for a change in the nation's capital.

"I think this is a message that Kentuckians are ready for," she said.

McGrath, who was painted as too liberal by Republicans last year, described herself on the program as a moderate. She also tried to put some distance between herself and national Democrats running for president.

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For instance, she said that she does not favor taking away private insurance as part of a federal overhaul and opposes subsidizing health insurance for undocumented immigrants as some presidential candidates have indicated.

"I think many Kentuckians feel that we have a problem with getting health insurance for many Americans, so we need to fix that first," McGrath said on MSNBC.

The McConnell campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment about McGrath’s announcement.

But the Republican's campaign sent a tweet welcoming McGrath to the race and featuring her comments in support of abortion and criticizing the Trump administration's plan to build a wall at the southern border.

McGrath has never held office, but she said in Tuesday's TV interview that that shouldn't be held against her.

"I’m not doing this because, like I said, I want to be some politician," she said. "I‘m doing this because I care about my country, and I care about Kentucky."

Beating McConnell, who has served in the Senate since 1985, won't be easy, she acknowledged. But she made the case that the senator has prevented Trump from passing legislation that people in the Bluegrass State have supported, such as bringing jobs to Kentucky and lowering drug prices.

"Who stops them along the way? Who stops the president from doing these things? Mitch McConnell," McGrath said. "And I think that that’s very important and that’s going to be my message – the things that Kentuckians voted for Trump for are not being done. He’s not able to get it done because of Senator McConnell."

McGrath swooped into Kentucky’s political scene in August 2017, when she announced her upstart 2018 congressional campaign in a viral YouTube video. She brought no political experience to the race but carried a strong resume as a Marine fighter pilot with 89 combat missions, including bombings of al-Qaida and the Taliban.

National Democrats, however, weren’t sold on the neophyte’s candidacy and recruited then-Lexington Mayor Jim Gray as their preferred candidate. McGrath whipped him and four other Democrats by a near-landslide margin in the 2018 primary to claim the nomination.

The McGrath campaign in that race was defined by strong television and internet ads, including her announcement video, where she stood in front of a fighter jet wearing her bomber jacket. She noted then as well how McConnell never wrote back to her when she wrote to him about her dream to serve the country when she was 13 years old.

McGrath retired from the Marines in 2017 as a lieutenant colonel and moved back to Kentucky. At the urging of former U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, she jumped into the House race against Barr, who had ousted Chandler in 2012.

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As a candidate, she favored saving the Affordable Care Act but said she ultimately wants universal health care coverage for all Americans. She also supported the legalization of medical marijuana, said that climate change is “a fact” and that Kentucky should try to lead the nation in renewable energy.

Republicans, however, hammered McGrath relentlessly on abortion after she said: “I don’t think the government should be involved in a woman’s right to choose what is happening to her body.”

The GOP had a field day with leaked audio from a fundraiser in Massachusetts, in which she said, “I am further left, I am more progressive, than anyone in the state of Kentucky.” And they quibbled over whether she had exaggerated her military record because during some of her combat missions, she flew in the second seat rather than as a pilot.

As the Democratic “blue wave” became the center of attention for the 2018 cycle, McGrath appeared poised to defeat Barr. But a last-minute visit by Trump helped Barr to victory by a little more than 3 percentage points.

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But that put her squarely in the sights of national Democrats who were looking for a candidate who could raise money from a national base, to take on McConnell – the man who she says never wrote back to her when she was a teenager.

McConnell has already launched his reelection campaign. It raked in $2.1 million since January and has $5.6 million in cash on hand. 

The Republican will lean heavily into how his majority leader role benefits the state, while boasting about the success of giving the nation’s judiciary a conservative makeover since Trump took office in 2017.

McConnell has relished in being the “Grim Reaper” for House Democrats and liberal America as a whole. It started with him blocking then-President Barack Obama from making a critical appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016.

For the past two and a half years, McConnell has talked about how he "led the fight for our conservative values" by helping confirm Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, who was hit with an allegation of sexual assault as a high school student in the middle of his confirmation. 

Congressional candidate Amy McGrath speaks at a potluck rally in Frankfort, Ky. Oct. 10, 2018

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Kentucky is a state in which Trump remains popular, and McConnell will try mightily to remain behind that shield.

Trump has a net approval in the state of plus 16 points, according to the polling firm Morning Consult. McConnell, conversely, is the least popular U.S. senator in the country, according to the same surveys. He has a net approval of negative 16 points.

Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate, with two independents caucusing with the Democrats, and its makeup will be essential for whoever controls the White House in 2021.

Democrats need a net gain of four seats if Trump wins reelection or three seats if they take back the White House. They are eyeing pickups in states such as Colorado, Maine and Arizona.

But that means the party will also have to keep all of its current seats.

If McConnell is still majority leader, it will handicap a Democratic president’s agenda. That fact was acknowledged during the first Democratic presidential debate on NBC when the first 10 candidates were asked by moderators if they had a plan to combat the Kentucky Republican.

"Being criticized for stopping the liberal agenda and confirming conservative judges, I love it," McConnell told reporters in Washington, D.C. after the June 26 debate.

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Other Democrats who are rumored to be considering a run in 2020 are statehouse Minority Leader Rocky Adkins, an eastern Kentucky lawmaker who came in second in the gubernatorial primary, and sports radio host Matt Jones, who has built a powerful media empire for being known as the No. 1 University of Kentucky basketball fan.

Jones has said publicly on his television program that McGrath can’t win statewide coming off the heels of losing in the confines of central Kentucky’s more moderate congressional district.

Democrat Steven Cox, of Madisonville, a health care professional, is also running.

Former state Rep. C. Wesley Morgan, a Richmond liquor store owner, is running in the Republican primary.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Amy McGrath says she will take on Mitch McConnell in 2020 US Senate race