Amy McGrath Has a Bracing Message for America

This Democrat running for Congress in Kentucky thinks American government is worth fighting for.

The candidate.

It’s easy to blame Donald Trump for much of what’s wrong in America. But give credit where it’s due. He's pushing people like Amy McGrath into the political arena.

McGrath, 42, retired as a lieutenant colonel from the Marine Corps earlier this year, moved with her husband and three young children back to her native Kentucky, and promptly began running as a Democrat for the Sixth District congressional seat occupied by Republican Andy Barr.

Her August announcement video, punctuated by a characteristic defiance of obstacles and images from her path-breaking career as a fighter pilot, brought in almost $200,000 in contributions within 36 hours.

Seated at the dining table in her spacious, if not-quite-lived-in house in Georgetown, Kentucky, I asked her if she would still be running if Hillary Clinton were president. “No,” she said without delay. “No way.”

McGrath offers a pretty standard Democratic response to GOP tax cuts (“fiscally irresponsible and in my opinion just morally wrong”) and attacks on the Affordable Care Act (from which Kentucky has benefited immensely). But she packs some surprises, too. 

The most important may be McGrath’s unusually positive message on American government. As a Marine, she toured the world (“except for the nice places”), living in tents in Afghanistan, Kuwait and Kyrgyzstan. After looking around, she thinks American democracy isn’t as swampy, dysfunctional and broken as it's advertised to be. 

“The concern I have is this constant bashing of our institutions, of our principles, bashing the government itself,” she said. “Trust me, I’ve been to countries where there’s no government. And our government’s pretty damned good.”

We can make American governing institutions better, she said, "but we can’t make them better if nobody wants to go into them because we’re bashing them.”

She’s similarly concerned that core American principles are being undermined by attacks and indifference. “Our constitutional principles, which you can say, ‘Well, they’re on a paper and they’ll never be taken away.’ Folks, we have to fight for those every day. Freedom of the press -- you think that can’t go away? OK. Maybe.”

McGrath is mounting her first campaign systematically, pragmatically, balancing fundraising against other concerns. She has kept her distance from Emily's List, the financial engine that powers the campaigns of many Democratic pro-choice women. I thought that might suggest unorthodox Democratic views on abortion; I was wrong.

“I’m one-hundred percent pro-choice. I align with everything Emily's List aligns with,” she told me.

Then why isn’t she raking in the pro-choice dough?

“I don’t want to be tied to a litmus test,” McGrath said. “I don’t want to be tied to any national interest like that, where people can say, you’re just a puppet.”

Without the viral campaign video bringing in cash, such independence would likely be unaffordable. But McGrath has attracted talented consultants, including ad-maker Mark Putnam, who made the video that has enabled McGrath to pay for the services of advisers like Putnam himself and pollster Fred Yang.

The Sixth District encompasses all of Lexington and Frankfort, the state capital, and includes fabulously wealthy horse country along with poor areas to the southeast. Trump won the district with almost 55 percent of the vote.

After a quarter century in a hyper-masculine world, starting at the U.S. Naval Academy and continuing through two decades of barrier-breaking assignments as a Marine (she flew 89 combat missions in Afghanistan and Iraq), McGrath said she’s not worried about a Trumpian backlash against a striving, successful woman. “If somebody’s not going to vote for me because I’m a strong woman -- wow. What can you do?” she said. “And I haven’t really seen that out there.” 

Still, she’s mindful of cultural currents:

With the social issues, when I talk to people I tell them I actually align with the John Roberts conservative Supreme Court. The John Roberts conservative Supreme Court has upheld women’s reproductive rights, it’s upheld the right of freedom to marry who you want to marry, and the conservative Roberts Supreme Court has upheld the right for a private citizen to own a firearm. And I tell people, if you’re more conservative than the conservative Roberts Supreme Court, then you should probably not be voting for me if those are your issues.

McGrath has opposition in the primary already, and politicos are waiting to see if Democratic Mayor Jim Gray of Lexington enters the race. Many Kentucky Democrats are withholding contributions until Gray makes a decision.

While Gray’s entry wouldn’t be surprising, the emergence of an unknown but highly appealing candidate such as McGrath may not be either. It’s the sort of thing that happens when something goes dangerously awry, and talented people who might otherwise be making a nice salary or picking up the kids from soccer practice start thinking instead about running for public office.

The Iraq War was one such catalyzing disaster. By the spring of 2006, the last time the House of Representatives flipped from Republican control to Democratic, more than 50 veterans were running for Congress as Democrats. Already, more than 30 veterans are running for seats in 2018, according to a Democratic strategist.

Democrats need 24 seats to change hands in 2018 to take the House. If a wave materializes, weaker Republican districts such as KY-06 are prone to get swept up in the change. If McGrath prevails, or becomes a significant political figure even in defeat, it will be because she was moved, once again, to protect the homeland -- this time from the danger posed by Trump.

“I have been against everything that he has ever stood for,” McGrath said. “The selfishness, the lies, the mentality that women are just sex objects, the idea that character doesn’t matter, the idea that integrity, and being truthful, is whenever it suits you -- those are all traits that I have spent my entire adult life fighting against as a military officer.”

McGrath’s husband, a Republican and a former Navy aviator, is doing his part, too, taking a bigger share of domestic duties even as he starts a new job. The same people who risked their lives for years battling foreign fanatics are sacrificing again to address a domestic threat. 

“I never set out to be a politician,” she said. “I set out to be fighter pilot. And I did it and I loved it. And now I think we need people who want to serve their country a little more. I’ve fought for my country for 24 years. I’m still fighting for my country right now.”

(Corrects reference to the military career of Amy McGrath's husband in the 23rd paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

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