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Marine Veteran Amy McGrath Wins Tough Democratic Primary In Kentucky's 6th District

Amy McGrath
Courtesy Amy McGrath
Amy McGrath

Former fighter pilot Amy McGrath vanquished Lexington's mayor in Tuesday's Democratic primary for a congressional seat in Kentucky, setting up a tougher mission against a Republican incumbent in a district seen as a pickup opportunity for her party.

McGrath, a political newcomer who spent 20 years in the Marine Corps, defeated Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, state Sen. Reggie Thomas and three other opponents.

Her victory sets up a high-profile fall campaign against Rep. Andy Barr in the 6th District, which Republican Donald Trump carried in 2016. Democrats see it as their best chance to gain a seat in the Bluegrass State.

The district stretches from the Appalachian foothills to bluegrass country in and around Lexington, and has swung between Democratic and Republican representation for decades.

Barr, a supporter of Trump's agenda, easily defeated challenger Chuck Eddy in Tuesday's Republican primary. The conservative congressman is seeking a fourth term.

In Kentucky's most urban congressional district, the state's former top-ranking health official, Vickie Yates Brown Glisson, won a three-way Republican primary. Glisson led the state's effort to impose the nation's first work requirements on Medicaid recipients. Now she'll challenge U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, the only Democrat in Kentucky's congressional delegation, in the Louisville-area 3rd District.

Elsewhere across Kentucky, Democrats were nominating candidates who will be prohibitive underdogs against four Republican congressmen in November.

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, dean of the state's congressional delegation, cruised past a challenger in Tuesday's Republican primary; the other GOP incumbents — U.S. Reps. James Comer, Brett Guthrie and Thomas Massie — were unopposed.

The state's biggest political splash this spring was in the 6th District, where McGrath and Gray reached out to voters with a series of TV ads touting their credentials.

McGrath played up her military career, which ended in 2017 when she retired from the Marines as a lieutenant colonel who had flown 89 combat missions, including bombings targeting al-Qaida and the Taliban. Gray, Lexington's first openly gay mayor, touted his successes in business and in running the district's largest city.

The tame primary campaign turned negative when Gray ran a late ad noting McGrath was a relative newcomer to the district. McGrath, who grew up in northern Kentucky, took up residency in the 6th District last year after ending her military career.

Gray's bid to make residency an issue didn't sway voters like Dixie Klier of Versailles, who backed McGrath.

"The fact that she came back to her state to support it when we really need a national change, I admire her for that," Klier said. "She didn't have to do that. That was a choice."

McGrath overcame Gray's early advantages in name recognition and political connections. Two years ago, Gray narrowly won the 6th District in his losing campaign against Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul. McGrath had criticized Gray as being recruited by establishment Democrats.

Teresa Newman of Versailles struggled to decide, but chose McGrath in the end.
"It was very hard because I like Jim Gray, too," she said. "It was a last-minute decision. ... I think we need young energy in there. I know she cares about the health care issue. She wants Kentuckians to have heath care."

McGrath is part of a surge of women and military veterans running as Democratic candidates as part of the party's strategy nationally to challenge Republican rule in the 2018 midterm elections.

While McGrath and Gray found common ground on many issues, her matchup against Barr will present voters with sharply contrasting views.

Since his election to Congress in 2012, Barr has joined the GOP push to dismantle much of former President Barack Obama's legacy, including the health-care law known as Obamacare.

McGrath supports the Affordable Care Act, but says she would try to improve it by creating a public health insurance option. She also supports expanded access to Medicare to people 55 and older.

Jonese Franklin is the WFPL Program Director and host of All Things Considered. Email Jonese at jfranklin@lpm.org.