‘More moderate’ McGrath faces ‘candidates of change’ in primary

When Amy McGrath ran for the U.S. House in 2018, Cameron French was with her. He was a campus organizer at UK, where he is a student. But now, as McGrath seeks the Democratic nomination for senator, he’s organizing for state Rep. Charles Booker.

French said he abandoned McGrath on the second day of her Senate campaign when she told The Courier Journal that she would have voted to put Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court. She reversed herself hours later, but she had lost French for good. And surely others.

“That was a hard ‘no’ for me,” French said Tuesday, adding that he felt freshly justified because Kavanaugh was in the minority when the court ruled 6-3 that laws banning sexual discrimination covered gay and transgender people.

“Amy has really changed from 2018,” French told me. “In 2018, she wasn’t afraid to stand up and take a stand on issues.” Today, he said, she panders to moderate and conservative Democrats.

That is what McGrath was doing when she endorsed Kavanaugh and when she said she would appeal to pro-Trump Democrats by arguing that McConnell has kept the president from keeping his pledge to “drain the swamp,” reduce drug prices and launch a new infrastructure program.

McGrath hasn’t changed as much as her electoral goal has changed. In 2018, she was running in the winnable Sixth District and might have won if Trump hadn’t come there and mobilized his supporters. She carried only Lexington.

As she mounted a campaign to oust Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, McGrath had to appeal to a more conservative and pro-Trump statewide electorate.

She did it clumsily, and the seeds she spilled were soon harvested by Michael Broihier, a Lincoln County farmer (and, like her, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel) who had decided to run before she announced. He earned endorsements from regional chapters of Indivisible, a progressive group that trumpets “Beat Trump and Save Democracy,” then in early May won the backing of Indivisible Kentucky, its Louisville chapter.

Meanwhile, McGrath’s bad start had inspired Booker to pass up an all-but-certain second term in the state House. Then the coronavirus pandemic made officials postpone the primary by five weeks, to June 23, and in late May, demonstrations erupted in Louisville over the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville. Booker, an African American, was front and center, and the national moment brought him attention, endorsements, money for TV advertising and voter support.

McGrath, hearing Booker’s footsteps, has new ads that follow a primary election strategy, not the general election playbook that her handsomely funded campaign had been running against McConnell. The ad buys and the limited (and flawed) public polling indicate a competitive race, but as of this writing on Thursday evening, McGrath had not attacked Booker on TV, indicating she thinks he won’t catch her.

Still, predicting the primary is more difficult than usual. Most votes will be by mail, and some were cast before Booker became the latest shiny metal object in Kentucky politics, amplified by coming from the state’s largest media market. Mail voting will make turnout unusually high, which should help the more moderate McGrath, but requests for ballots in Louisville indicate a record turnout, and Booker needs a big margin there to counter McGrath’s more rural vote. Broihier has more rural appeal and TV ads, but his vote could hurt fellow liberal Booker more than McGrath.

Sports-radio host Matt Jones, who considered running and has endorsed Booker, said at a Booker event at his Lexington restaurant Tuesday that Kentucky’s second city would decide the winner. It should be McGrath’s base, but Booker got a foothold there Tuesday with backing from McConnell’s last foe, Alison Lundergan Grimes.

Look to the state’s eastern coalfield, too. Jones said he endorsed after hearing Booker say that their native places, Middlesboro and western Louisville, “ain’t that much different.” Jones said, “People wake up and feel they don’t have an opportunity,” and Booker agreed: “Unemployment is high, jobs have left, people feel abandoned. It’s like a relic of the past; buildings are crumbling, internet is crap.”

As they say in Appalachia, plain talk’s understood. McGrath’s money lets her out-talk Booker on TV, but her early blunders make her seem calculated and less believable. Her hope lies in voters less passionate than Cameron French. That showed in an online Q-and-A with supporters Tuesday; asked about Confederate symbols, she endorsed Jeff Davis’s eviction from the state Capitol and said “We need to make meaningful, uh, adjustments, here in this country with criminal justice, with education inequities, with real racial inequities in terms of health care.”

Adjustments. That’s a quintessentially moderate word. Her foes are candidates of change, so the primary may tell us just how much change Kentucky Democrats want.

Al Cross is a former Courier Journal political writer and is professor and director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at UK. He writes this column for the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism. On Twitter he is @ruralj.