Amy McGrath, a Soaring Democratic Candidate, Is Brought Back to Earth on Election Day
Posted November 7, 2018 5:10 p.m. EST
RICHMOND, Ky. — At 5 a.m. on Election Day, Mark Nickolas awoke to write a speech he thought would never be delivered.
Nickolas, the campaign manager for Amy McGrath, one of the Democratic Party’s most high-profile candidates for Congress, quickly drafted a 400-word concession, printed it, sealed it in an envelope, and then deleted it from his computer.
He had hoped to burn it after McGrath claimed victory. Instead, at 8:28 p.m., he pulled out the envelope and handed it her.
McGrath’s loss to Rep. Andy Barr in this central Kentucky congressional district made vivid the yawning divide between rural America and the rest of the nation. Her campaign’s election model called for her to win 57 percent of the vote in Fayette County, home of the district’s largest city, Lexington, and the University of Kentucky. She won almost 60 percent.
But she underperformed in Franklin County, home of the state capital, Frankfort, and more important, Barr ran up the score in the district’s 17 rural counties. As with so many of the nation’s House districts, the rural stretches were not receptive to the campaign pitches that drove urban and young voters.
“If you can’t win here, nobody can,” said Ben Chandler, the last Democrat to hold the seat, said to McGrath as he hugged her.
A former Marine combat aviator and Naval Academy graduate, McGrath was thought to be the kind of Democrat who would attract both urban and rural votes. She raised more money than her opponent. Former Vice President Joe Biden campaigned for her in a rural area.
But the hill was always going to be steep. Republicans have a 10-point partisan advantage in the district, which President Donald Trump carried by 15 percentage points and Barr by 22 in 2016.
Shortly after the election of Trump, she talked about running with Chandler, who then introduced her to Nickolas, whom she persuaded to come back into politics after nine years working as a documentary filmmaker. He, in turn, contacted ad maker Mark Putnam, and he agreed to take on a House race, an unusual move given that he had worked on former President Barack Obama’s campaigns and primarily statewide races.
Putnam was drawn to a speech that McGrath had given when she was inducted into the Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame and recounted what it took for a woman to be successful in the military. “She said you have to be tough,” Putnam said. “It came out on her face. The hair went up on the back of my neck. I said, ‘This lady has something special.'”
The speech was the inspiration for a campaign launch video in August 2017 that soon went viral and catapulted McGrath to prominence. She raised more than $2 million and shocked the Democratic Party in Washington by easily defeating Jim Gray, the popular mayor of Lexington, in the primary.
McGrath proved to be a strong fundraiser, bringing in more than $6 million for the fall campaign, giving her resources to open field offices in all 19 counties, buy thousands of yard signs, mail 10-page glossy brochures to voters, run television ads nonstop, and even buy 30,000 Hershey’s chocolates, custom-wrapped with her campaign logo, to give out at Halloween.
She also quietly embarked on a trip that took her to the border with Mexico on July 1 and 2, a fact-finding mission organized by another retired Marine, Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass. They recorded footage of the visit, but did not notify any news media.
Heading into August, her campaign aired its first ad, a positive spot that reminded voters of her biography. At that point, her private polling showed she had a 7-percentage-point lead.
In mid-August, Republicans struck back with a blizzard of attack ads from both Barr and the Congressional Leadership Fund, the sanctioned super PAC of Speaker Paul D. Ryan. It was an advertising blitz never seen before that early in an election cycle. The ads painted her as “too liberal” for Kentucky and an acolyte of Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. After two weeks, her polling showed that she was down 5 points and had lost support among non-college-educated women.
McGrath said that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee urged her to respond by attacking Barr, advice she rejected. “I didn’t want to do that,” McGrath said. “I am so tired of that kind of politics. I wanted to see, well, can we stay ahead, do we have a shot if we don’t do that, if we can just be positive.” Putnam added, “Our feeling was that if we let this race devolve into the typical nationalized campaign where we were trying to hit him on the same old tactics, we would lose.”
But the ads did wound her. “I get that sense when I go into a Walmart or a Kroger, and I don’t know anything about them, but I feel like they’ve already judged me and that’s hard,” McGrath said.
Instead, her campaign countered by running three ads at the same time — called triple tracking — all with a positive tone, emphasizing home videos with her three children and the story of her mother, Marianne, a physician who is also a polio survivor. Within two weeks, her campaign’s polling had her back in the lead.
In early October, as the debate over Trump’s policy of family separation made headlines, McGrath aired an ad about her border trip and wrote an op-ed for local newspapers. Her campaign believed that helped inoculate her as the president whipped up his base with caustic rhetoric about the migrant caravan heading to the border.
The McGrath campaign had planned for the controllable events, but not for things like the eruption of Republican ire over the confirmation hearings of Justice Brett M. Kavanagh. After that fight, McGrath’s lead dropped from 11 points to 7 in her campaign polls. Two weeks later, that lead had shrunk to 3.
Then the migrant caravan started.
Campaign officials started to run her ad about the border with greater frequency than Putnam had ever used in a congressional race. Internal polling had McGrath’s lead holding at 2 points in the middle of October, and 2 points in her final campaign survey at the end of October.
Then Barr aired an ad with a Kentucky sheriff in uniform saying that McGrath was for open borders. McGrath called it “extreme” bunk.
Still, she entered Election Day confident of victory, and so did her campaign team. It booked a suite for her and top campaign officials and family at a hotel in Richmond. She and Putnam huddled for more than an hour to go over what she hoped would be her victory speech.
Early returns seemed positive. But Nickolas soon saw a disturbing trend. While McGrath was beating her targets in Fayette County, she was missing them in Franklin, and Barr was doing much better than the McGrath campaign forecasts in rural areas. McGrath stared at the returns on Nickolas’ computer. Her mother, brother and sister were there, too.
Soon her face looked grim. She paced the room. And finally, Nickolas reached down for the envelope and handed it to her.
On Wednesday, Nickolas was undeterred by the loss. McGrath, he said, should “give some serious thought” to running for governor next year.