Campaign

McConnell challenger faces tougher path after rocky launch

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer's (D-N.Y.) prize recruit to challenge Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in 2020 faces new competition for the Democratic nomination after her rocky campaign launch. 

Amy McGrath's shaky start has Kentucky Democrats wondering if she's the best candidate to take on McConnell. And they now have options.

Mike Broihier, a first-time candidate and former U.S. Marine, announced his candidacy on Friday. He joined Democrat Steve Cox, a health care professional, who entered the race in May.

Several other potential candidates, including state Rep. Charles Booker (D), radio talk show host Matt Jones and Kentucky House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins (D), are all thinking about jumping into the Democratic primary.

"There are a lot of people thinking about it," said Rep. John Yarmuth, the state's top-ranking Democratic official and the only Kentucky Democrat in Congress.

He said McGrath's "launch was a little bit rocky, to put it gently."

But Yarmuth predicted she will recover from her early stumble.

"That would have been damaging if there were four months left in the election, but there are 16 months left. So I don't worry about that," he said. 

He also praised her for having what he called "a great national brand" and "a great resume," predicting she "will raise tons of money."

McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot, has an impressive resume but struggled to hit her stride out of the gate last week when she said she would have voted to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. She quickly reversed her position.

She also fell short while answering questions from CNN host Jake Tapper about whether she could be considered a pro-Trump Democrat and how her appeal to Trump voters could be squared with her statement comparing his 2016 victory to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

She was met with puzzled reactions when she told MSNBC in an interview that McConnell hasn't done enough to help President Trump keep his pledge to "drain the swamp," raising questions about whether she might somehow try to be more pro-Trump than McConnell - a notion McGrath later dispelled.

On the bright side, McGrath announced she had raised $2.5 million on the first day of her campaign, an impressive sum indicative of fundraising capabilities that will be essential to giving McConnell a competitive race.

Separately, Ditch Mitch, a Democratic-allied group, announced earlier this month that it had raised more than $1.1 million in the second quarter of 2019, a sign that whoever runs against McConnell in the general election will be well-funded.

"To me, she looks like the strongest candidate right now," Yarmuth said, although he declined to endorse her. "The last thing I'm going to do is get into the middle of a Democratic primary."

Yarmuth said Democratic leaders in Washington are more settled on McGrath than some prominent Democrats in Kentucky. 

"Clearly the [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] is very much sold on Amy. They clearly want her to be the nominee and see her as part of a national strategy to take back the Senate, and I'm sure there are people in the state who are not so sold on that concept," he said, pointing to the number of people who might challenge her in the primary. 

McConnell has shown signs of looking increasingly vulnerable ahead of next year's race, and that's raising interest among Kentucky Democrats hoping to unseat him.

A Morning Consult poll published last week showed McConnell is the nation's most unpopular senator, with voters in his state giving him a 50 percent job disapproval rating. 

Yarmuth told the Louisville Courier Journal that it would be good to have a competitive primary to ensure the party fields the most prepared candidate against McConnell, who is known as a hard-knuckled campaigner.

"I think a primary might be helpful in this situation," he said. "Because whoever is going to face off against Mitch McConnell really needs to get their game in shape. Certainly Amy would be a favorite in any kind of primary, but I think it would help her. And if somebody else could beat her, they would have demonstrated their strength as well."

Yarmuth called McGrath's statement that she would vote for Kavanaugh a mistake.

A campaign spokesman said McGrath doesn't expect to be handed the nomination.

"No one is entitled to the nomination, and we are making our case to the voters each and every day to energize the electorate to defeat Sen. McConnell," said Terry Sebastian. "As a 20-year combat Marine, it was never Amy's life goal to be a politician, but she stepped into this race to drain the swamp by defeating Sen. McConnell so Kentucky has a true leader who puts hard-working Kentuckians and their families ahead of special interests."

While McGrath has the backing of Schumer and his powerful fundraising network, some Kentucky Democrats wonder if she has a realistic chance of beating McConnell.

Jones, the founder of Kentucky Sport Radio in Lexington who is looking at the Senate race, said in March that McGrath can't beat McConnell.

"She can't beat McConnell, so why would you want to recruit her to run?" he said at the time. "She would be a great public servant. I just don't know if she can beat McConnell in Kentucky, which is probably what the goal is."

A former state Democratic official noted that last year McGrath said she wouldn't have voted for Kavanaugh.

"I think she just forgot where she was on it," the official said. "You can't backpedal."

The source, who requested anonymity to discuss McGrath frankly, said, "There's still some ambivalence about her candidacy."

"Matt Jones is really good on his feet, and I think he would run Amy around in circles if they debated. But I don't know if she would allow that," the official said.

The source said there's talk that Matthew Barzun, a Louisville resident and the former U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, is also looking at the race.

Terry McBrayer, a former state Democratic Party chairman, said beating McConnell will be extremely tough with Trump at the top of the ticket.

"Running against Mitch, he's tough. We all know that," he said. "I think the race depends a lot on Trump and where the national situation is. That's going to drive it all. Trump's pretty popular down here."

"Trump will be in East Kentucky and West Kentucky, and that will have a big bearing on the race," he said.

Trump beat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in Kentucky by 30 points in 2016. The Democratic Senate nominee that year, Jim Gray, outperformed Clinton by 10 points but wound up losing to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) by 15 points - 57.3 percent to 42.7 percent.

McGrath narrowly lost to Rep. Andy Barr (R) last year in Kentucky's 5th Congressional District, 51 percent to 48 percent.

McBrayer predicted that McGrath will win the nomination even if she faces several challengers and that she will raise tens of millions of dollars.

He said that while McGrath had a flawed campaign rollout, it won't make much of a difference by the time the general election rolls around.

"She got a bad break taking off, but it doesn't amount to a hill of beans. Hell, they don't start the race yet. You got plenty of time on that one," he said.

McConnell is known for his sophisticated and thorough opposition research on opponents, and McBrayer said one of McGrath's greatest strengths is that she's well-vetted.

"There's not much you can do to her. She has been vetted. They've done that pretty well and didn't have much there," he said.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.) says she has full confidence in McGrath but gave no indication the leaders in Washington will try to clear the field for her.

Asked if she had concerns about McGrath after her campaign launch, Cortez Masto said, "Not at all." 

"It's just the opposite," she said, asserting that there's "a lot of enthusiasm" for McGrath's candidacy. 

But Cortez Masto said it's up to Kentucky voters to pick the Democratic nominee, not leaders in Washington. 

"People there need to do what they think is appropriate," she said.

Al Weaver contributed.

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