Some Kentucky Democrats have expressed displeasure with how retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Amy McGrath launched her campaign for Senate.
They disagreed with her positioning, notably that McGrath said that she, unlike six-term Sen. Mitch McConnell, would help President Trump “drain the swamp.”
They also found her wanting as a candidate — McGrath at first suggested she would have voted for Trump’s Supreme Court pick, Brett Kavanaugh, then quickly backtracked.
Rep. John Yarmuth, Kentucky’s only Democratic congressman, publicly said that another prominent Democrat should run, instead of offering McGrath a clear path to the party’s nomination for the Senate seat. Another Democrat, a virtual unknown, has entered the race and some more prominent Democrats now are considering it.
But here’s the thing — McGrath still has a great chance to win the nomination. At least right now, she is the clear favorite. And that’s not just because she entered the race first and has already raised more than $2.5 million for her campaign.
Many of the Democrats who have been floated as potential candidates have very obvious reasons not to run. In fact, one of McGrath’s biggest advantages is that she didn’t have a high-profile job that she had to give up to run for the Senate.
Here’s a look at three Democrats who are thinking about running against McGrath (and one who is already in the race), and some of the hurdles they face:
Rocky Adkins — The House Minority Floor Leader, with his base in eastern Kentucky, would be a logical candidate to run against McConnell and potentially challenge the incumbent in more rural areas where Democratic candidates for statewide office generally struggle.
But Adkins would likely have a hard time defeating McGrath in a primary because he has voted for legislation designed to limit the ability of women to get abortions and describes himself as “pro-life.” McGrath supports abortion rights.
Adkins, in the 2019 Democratic gubernatorial primary, struggled in Louisville and Lexington, with more liberal voters opting for candidates who support abortion rights (Andy Beshear and Adam Edelen.)
Would his abortion stance make it impossible for Adkins to win a primary? Perhaps not. Maybe Adkins’ loss in May’s gubernatorial primary was not because of his abortion views but that he was facing Beshear, who not only is a high-profile figure himself as the state’s attorney general but likely benefits from his father Steve’s long career in Kentucky politics. McGrath has a following, but neither she nor her father has been elected statewide in Kentucky.
Adkins has two other potential challenges. The first challenge applies to all of the potential rivals to McGrath.
McGrath started her campaign with a series of interviews on CNN and MSNBC that cast her as “the” candidate taking on McConnell. That helped her raise millions from Democratic donors across the country and get public praise from national figures like Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris. Democrats, particularly those outside of Kentucky, may not be eager to give millions to a second Kentucky U.S. Senate candidate.
“She misspent the royal welcome to the race that would be due to the first Democratic candidate: a welcome that is rich with national media attention and money… lots of money. If you paid attention to the national, local and social media coverage about McGrath, you would have thought she had already won the Democratic nomination,” Aaron Yarmuth, the congressman’s son and editor of LEO, wrote in a recent piece.
He added: “The $2.5 million she raised isn’t coming back or going to the better, next candidate. The national media spotlight isn’t coming back and won’t be as large to welcome a better, next candidate.”
Secondly, Adkins, by running for the U.S. Senate seat, would remove himself from the happenings in Frankfort, where he probably has a greater chance to have a big impact.
Kentucky Democrats see 2020 as a chance to narrow the GOP’s 61-39 majority in the state House and perhaps deny the Republicans a true governing majority.
Nine Republicans in the House this week refused to get behind the pension bill that Gov. Matt Bevin made a big priority. If Democrats get to say, 45 seats, governing could be more complicated for the Republican majority in Frankfort, where there is a faction of Republicans led by former Speaker Jeff Hoover that occasionally won’t go along with the GOP’s leadership.
Does Adkins want to give up the statehouse seat he has held for 32 years, his leadership role in Frankfort and the potential to help his party gain ground in the statehouse for a Senate run where he will be an underdog to McGrath and an even bigger underdog to McConnell?
Charles Booker — The first-term state representative is well-liked by liberal activists in Louisville. It’s easy to see him running to the left of McGrath and wooing more progressive Democrats throughout the state.
And there is some chance, if Republicans remain in control in Frankfort, that redistricting after the 2020 election cycle means that Booker’s district is eliminated or merged into one where there is already a Democratic state representative. So Booker probably has less to lose than Adkins with a Senate run.
That said, Booker is in a safe legislative seat (Hillary Clinton won there by 53 percentage points in 2016) for now and very likely to win reelection in 2020 if he runs again.
Does he want to give up the chance to stay in the statehouse, potentially grow his profile there and position himself for a more winnable campaign in the future, instead of opting for a long-shot Senate run now?
McGrath, despite her early foibles, would probably be the favorite over Booker, because of her fundraising and the fact that Booker likely is not particularly well-known outside of Louisville. And he too would be a huge underdog to McConnell in a general election.
Mike Broihier — I had never heard of Broihier before the Lincoln County farmer and retired Marine launched his candidacy last week — and I suspect a lot of other observers of Kentucky politics had not either.
He could emerge from nowhere and win; in 2017-2018, McGrath went from being an unknown to defeating the longtime mayor of Lexington in a U.S. House primary.
But he has no obvious base of support — and McGrath’s early gaffes aren’t likely to hurt her that much if she generally takes mainstream Democratic stances and answers questions more clearly in the future.
Matt Jones — The general manager of the Lexington-based TV network Lex 18 has removed Jones from his slot as an anchor on “Hey Kentucky” until Jones decides if he is going to run for the Senate. Jones would almost certainly be permanently gone from that job if he formally enters the race. (Jones also hosts Kentucky Sports Radio. He remains in that role, and it’s not clear how that would change if Jones ran for the Senate.)
But whatever the official status of his jobs, Jones, if running for the Senate, would be taking a risk in terms of maintaining his career as a broadcaster known mainly for talking about sports.
Jones’ liberal views are well-known — he regularly interviews political figures and gives his takes on major news events. That said, a statewide Senate campaign is much different from occasionally talking about politics.
In a Senate campaign, does Jones criticize Trump or his Kentucky supporters in a way that makes it hard for Jones to return to his sports broadcasting career post-campaign (if he doesn’t win) because he has annoyed too many of his listeners? Do his opponents, particularly McConnell, who is likely to spend millions of dollars on commercials bashing whoever is the Democratic Senate nominee, unearth controversial information or portray Jones so negatively that his current fans would be turned off?
Let’s say Jones does run. There’s no guarantee he will win the primary. Jones supports abortion rights (unlike Adkins) and probably starts out with a bigger following around the state than Booker. He doesn’t have obvious vulnerabilities against McGrath. But Jones has never run for a major public office before. He has long been touted as having the skills to be a good politician, but this remains untested.
And as Jones himself has said, he would essentially have to defeat the national Democratic establishment (which has embraced McGrath) and the national Republican one (which is behind McConnell). He could run a long-shot campaign — or keep doing his two jobs talking about sports, basically the dream of every adult man.
To conclude, none of this is to guarantee McGrath will win next May’s Democratic Senate primary. Perhaps one of these men does run, raises enough money to be competitive and proves a better candidate than McGrath.
Or maybe another Democrat emerges. (Louisville-based Morgan McGarvey, the Democratic leader in the state Senate, is also considering a run. McGarvey would have to give up his post in the state Senate, but Democrats have virtually no influence there anyway because the GOP has a 29-9 majority.)
But at least right now, McGrath, despite her bad start, remains in a strong position to win the Democratic primary.
McGrath, of course, like any Democrat will face very long odds against McConnell, with Trump on the ballot and expected to run up huge margins. But in some ways, the debate about McGrath’s candidacy is not just about the Democrats’ chances of beating McConnell.
Some Kentucky Democrats were frustrated that party officials in Washington basically anointed McGrath as the candidate. So will Kentucky Democrats find their own person Adkins, Booker or McGarvey) to assert that they, not officials in Washington, should choose the state’s Senate candidate?
More progressive Democrats are annoyed that McGrath seems to be running a campaign similar to Alison Grimes in 2014, distancing herself from the party’s base and concentrating on winning more conservative voters. Progressives in Kentucky say this approach both weakens their movement and doesn’t work electorally. They want to see statewide candidates take more populist stances on economic issues — and see if that path is more effective. Will Kentucky’s progressives try to assert themselves and show their clout by defeating McGrath?
Perry Bacon Jr. is a national political writer who is based in Louisville.