Amy McGrath address supporters after her loss during her Election Night Event at the EKU Center for the Arts on November 6, 2018 in Richmond, Kentucky.
Jason Davis | Getty Images
Democrats looking to win Senate seats in states that voted for President Donald Trump might have to rely on unconventional tactics if they have any chance of winning.
One such candidate, former fighter pilot Amy McGrath, is aiming to take down powerful Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell by accusing him of obstructing key parts of Trump’s agenda.
“Kentuckians voted for Donald Trump because they wanted to drain the swamp and lower prescription drug prices,” the Kentucky Democrat told The New York Times on July 9 when she announced her candidacy. “A lot of what has stood in the way of what Donald Trump promised is Senator McConnell.”
It’s a sharper twist on what’s become a typical Democratic line of attack since Trump took office. Democrats including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have accused Trump of failing to live up to his promise to “drain the swamp” as he continues to profit from private businesses, including his Washington hotel.
Now McGrath is making a clear attempt to appeal to Kentucky voters who think Washington’s culture, not Trump, is responsible for the failure to bring about the change he promised in 2016.
Echoes of Manchin
McGrath’s strategy appears to follow part of the blueprint drawn up by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin’s winning reelection campaign last year. In West Virginia, a state Trump won by 42 percentage points in 2016, Manchin said his Republican opponent, Patrick Morrisey, “basically made a living lobbying in the swamp.”
Despite raising a jaw-dropping $2.5 million in the first 24 hours of her campaign, McGrath faces a much tougher path than Manchin did. Manchin was also the only Senate Democrat to vote to confirm Trump Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. On July 10, McGrath faced backlash for saying she would have voted to confirm Kavanaugh despite sexual assault allegations, which he denied. She then reversed her position, saying she would not have voted to confirm. She caught a lot of heat for flip-flopping within 36 hours.
McGrath also has to contend with the well-tested campaign machinery of McConnell, who is one of the most powerful leaders in the country and has held his Senate seat since 1985.
Despite his 36% approval rating in Kentucky, according to a Morning Consult poll from the first quarter, McConnell is considered a heavy favorite. He won his last reelection by 15 percentage points. Trump won Kentucky by 30 percentage points.
Local vs. logical politics
While McGrath’s strategy makes sense logically, she is still unlikely to win against the formidable incumbent McConnell, said Scott Lasley, a professor of political science at Western Kentucky University.
At a certain point, Lasley said, McGrath will have to part ways with voters on major local issues such as coal mining, which is a split-party issue that is important to the Kentucky constituency.
“The ‘drain the swamp’ argument is a general argument against D.C., but it only gets you so far,” Lasley said. “The argument makes sense: Run against D.C. and run against partisanship. But when push comes to shove, that’s not enough to move voters.”
McGrath is smart for “tapping into concerns about whether McConnell is an effective leader,” said Tharon Johnson, political strategist at Paramount Consulting. But he added she should focus more on “localizing the race and making the kitchen-table issues her priority.”
McGrath narrowly lost a House race against Republican Rep. Andy Barr in 2018.
Strategy and the broader Senate map
Republicans hold a 53-47 edge in the Senate and have to defend 22 seats next year. Trump won 20 of those states.
Democrats appear to have better chances at defeating Republican incumbents in states such as Colorado, Maine and Arizona, where voters on net disapprove of the president by margins of 13, 15 and 7 percentage points, respectively, according to Morning Consult. The party will also attempt to defend a seat held by Democratic Sen. Doug Jones in the deep-red state of Alabama while seeking to flip seats in the traditionally GOP-leaning states Texas and Georgia.
So far, other Democratic Senate challengers are opting to hit Trump on bread-and-butter issues.
Mike Johnston, running in Colorado’s Democratic primary to challenge GOP incumbent Sen. Cory Gardner in 2020, has vocally criticized Trump for his policies on immigration enforcement and Gardner for his support of coal lobbyists. Johnston also said Gardner has failed to be “a different kind of Republican” who would deliver during his time in office.
Democrat Sara Gideon has announced her bid against moderate GOP incumbent Sen. Susan Collins in the 2020 Senate race in Maine. In a campaign video, Gideon went after Collins for supporting tax breaks for the wealthy and Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. Gideon has also been vocal about expanding Medicaid.
In Tennessee, Democrat James Mackler, a former attorney and an Iraq War veteran, became the first to announce his candidacy for the seat that will be vacated by Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander. From the onset of his campaign, he has vocally critiqued Trump and attempted to present the president as a direct adversary to the interests of Tennesseans.
“Politicians say you can’t criticize Donald Trump in Tennessee. Well, I’m not a politician, and the truth is Donald Trump is making life harder, not easier, for folks all across Tennessee,” Mackler said in a July campaign video.
Better off running as ‘an authentic liberal’?
It remains to be seen whether McGrath’s unusual strategy and messaging will stick and whether it would work for other Democrats running in red states. Her campaign is committed to it, at least for now.
“What Amy’s done is say, there’s a lot of things the president has put out that Democrats agree with,” said Mark Nickolas, McGrath’s campaign manager. He said Trump’s populist message in 2016 appealed to many Kentuckians, as Trump called for draining the swamp in Washington, for family leave and for infrastructure programs that would create jobs.
“All we’re saying is we’re using the president’s campaign promises against McConnell,” he added.
McConnell’s allies don’t seem too troubled by it, however. Josh Holmes, the majority leader’s former chief of staff, said McGrath’s rhetoric seemed “inauthentic.”
“The idea that someone whose entire candidacy last year was based upon opposition to Trump has performed a full lobotomy on herself and is reborn as a moderate Democrat is just insulting to voters,” he said. “She’s better off being an authentic liberal who raises money and loses by 15 [percentage points] than a performance artist who gets rung up by 20+ as Kentuckians see right through it.”