Kentucky Dems look to vault themselves in deep-red district

Kentucky Dems look to vault themselves in deep-red district
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Kentucky may be home to one of the most competitive House Democratic primaries in the country on Tuesday, but for a pair of candidates jousting in the state's 6th District, the contest is just the latest personal challenge they have faced.
Lexington Mayor Jim Gray (D) has spent eight years in charge of the city as its first openly gay mayor, while also becoming Kentucky’s first openly gay candidate for statewide office during an unsuccessful 2016 bid for Senate.
Former military pilot Amy McGrath, meanwhile, followed her childhood dream of flying fighter planes to the Marines, where she became the first woman to fly in an F/A-18 on a combat mission, despite internal resistance to women serving in combat.
On Tuesday, the two are set to square off in a hotly contested Democratic primary in a central Kentucky district that President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump to fundraise for 3 Republicans running for open seats: report Trump to nominate former Monsanto exec to top Interior position White House aides hadn’t heard of Trump's new tax cut: report MORE won by double-digits in 2016. The winner is expected to face an uphill battle against three-term GOP Rep. Andy BarrGarland (Andy) Hale BarrElection Countdown: Dems outraise GOP in final stretch | 2018 midterms already most expensive in history | What to watch in second Cruz-O'Rourke debate | Trump raises 0M for reelection | Why Dems fear Avenatti's approach Biden: Trump is 'trashing American values' The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by PhRMA — Dem victories in `18 will not calm party turbulence MORE in the fall.
“This is the grand experiment — can a Democrat win in a Republican-leaning, red-state district if they are more respectful of rural and small town traditions, and yet still maintain a fairly Democratic issue profile?” said Stephen Vos, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky.
Democrats have previously had success in the 6th District, which includes the cities of Lexington, Richmond and Frankfort. Former Rep. Ben Chandler (D) held the seat for nine years before losing to Barr by roughly 4 points in 2012. Democrats also won the district during the governor’s race in 2015.
But since Barr took over, he's won reelection twice by at least 20 points, and Trump's 15-point win in 2016 was an even higher margin for Republicans than during the previous two presidential elections.
Still, Democrats view the seat as a potential pickup opportunity as they seek to retake the House in the fall, with hopes that voter angst about ObamaCare repeal will resonate in a state where 500,000 people gained coverage with the bill's Medicaid expansion.
McGrath launched her campaign last summer with a sleek announcement video produced by prominent Democratic media consultant Mark Putnam. The video, which shows McGrath telling her story about breaking gender barriers in the Marines, won her early praise as well as a flood of donations.
The video helped McGrath seize a spotlight in the race over a handful of other candidates, including state Sen. Reggie Thomas (D), who has lagged in fundraising despite having a strong reputation among progressives in the district. McGrath has been able to showcase her military background to help set her apart from Democratic rivals.
“She not only put that military symbolism front and center when she emerged as a candidate, she’s also been very careful to talk about social and cultural issues in a way that ... sounds sympathetic to rural and small-town voters who have left the Democratic Party,” Vos said.
Yet Gray, a popular eight-year mayor of the largest city in the district, quickly won support after jumping into the race in December following the urging of key national Democrats, including some at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The mayor carried the 6th District during his unsuccessful bid to unseat Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulPaul to Saudi government: 'It takes a lot of damn gall' to lecture US Congress raises pressure on Saudi Arabia The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump says he is cutting foreign aid over caravan | Lawmakers point fingers at Saudi crown prince | DNC chair downplays 'blue wave' talk MORE (R-Ky.) in 2016. That, coupled with his personal wealth and ability to fund his own campaign if necessary, left many to consider him a formidable candidate for the House race in 2018.
“Jim beat Rand Paul in the district in 2016, that was one of the big things for me ... I like to see candidates vetted, and when I say vetted, they have to be run up the flag pole in four different races,” said longtime Kentucky Democratic strategist Jimmy Cauley, who has donated to both Gray and Thomas.
“He’s been the mayor for 10 years and done a pretty fair job at it. She may be the bright, new, shiny penny, but he got me the stop sign at the end of the street that I asked for.”
Observers note that Gray’s popularity in Lexington and Fayette County, the population center of the district, is a major structural advantage. It has also helped him win the endorsement of the Lexington Herald-Leader.
“Those relationships you build over 30 years, that grounds you in a way that someone who moves back here to run for Congress doesn’t have,” Gray campaign manager Jamie Emmons told The Hill, adding that Gray’s past life in business helped him connect with people across the entire district, not just in Lexington.
“His record of performance and results and getting things done that are meaningful to people differentiates him in this primary.”
McGrath has pushed back at those questioning her ties to the area. Confronted by Thomas during a debate in April, a visibly frustrated McGrath pushed back at the framing of herself as a “carpetbagger,” arguing that she couldn’t serve her country in the Marines and stay back home, too.
McGrath’s campaign manager, Mark Nickolas, told The Hill that the campaign has “without a doubt” focused heavily on the more rural areas outside of Lexington and Fayette County. Part of that was out of necessity, he said, adding that he believes the strategy will serve McGrath well during a general election, even if she continues to campaign as a progressive.
“If you are going to keep these seats, you have to look at this as developing a relationship and a trust with these counties for the long haul,” he said of the rural areas where Trump did well in 2016.
“These voters don’t expect that you are going to mimic them on every issue. But for them, it’s a respect thing — you are making an effort to come to them, respect them.
While Gray had an overwhelming lead in the polls when he jumped in, all parties agree the race has tightened significantly ahead of Tuesday's primary.
McGrath’s campaign released polling from mid-April that showed her with a 7-point lead. And while Gray’s campaign told The Hill they’ve never seen Gray trailing in their own internal polling, they admit the race has tightened since March, when they had polling that showed him up 33 points.
Both candidates have also been strong fundraisers — McGrath raised $2 million from her August announcement through the beginning of May, while Gray raised $1.3 million from December to early May.
Republicans have signaled they are ready for a tough fight come November.
Barr allies are confident that Republicans can keep hold of the district, particularly as the economy continues on an upward trend. The Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with House leadership, has an office in Barr's district and has already reserved $1.8 million in television advertising time, plus more on digital advertising, to defend him. 
While Democrats in the race have mostly avoided the intraparty sniping that has stoked disunity in other key primaries across the country, they have also resisted any siren song to pull them to the left in the primary, which could have consequences running to unseat a longtime Republican in November.
“They’ve managed to fight this out in a way that hasn’t forced them to take, in public, any deal-breaking issue positions,” Vos said.

“They are not forcing each other into a bidding war on who can be more extreme.”

McGrath’s campaign manager said that neither candidate “saw the benefit of it going full nuclear.”

“We’re adults, we didn’t make it personal. It wasn’t about retaliation,” Nickolas said.

“The best revenge is winning ... we now both want to defeat Barr in the fall.”