Taking on McConnell in 2020 Means Doing More Than Playing Defense

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the guy who could beat Mitch McConnell in 2020—Matt Jones. Apparently Chuck Schumer has another idea.

Chuck Schumer is actively recruiting a high-profile fighter pilot to take on Mitch McConnell in 2020 — a calculated act of aggression against a leading Republican foe.

Schumer met with Amy McGrath, a Marine veteran-turned 2018 congressional candidate, at Democratic Party headquarters last month to pitch her on running against McConnell. McGrath listened and didn’t rule it out.

You might remember Amy McGrath as the candidate who burst on the national political scene with one of the best video introductions of the 2018 midterms.

McGrath won the Democratic primary against the better-known mayor of Lexington, Jim Gray, but lost the general election in Kentucky’s 6th congressional district (rated R+9) to incumbent Republican Andy Barr by about three points.

Apparently, Mitch McConnell and his team are studying how that race played out in preparation for a potential run against McGrath in 2020. It is doubtful that the Majority Leader will have any trouble going as low as Barr did.

As the election drew closer, this became the story about McGrath.

The race for Kentucky’s Sixth Congressional District between the Republican incumbent, Andy Barr, and his Democratic challenger, Amy McGrath, has featured one of the highest concentration of political ads in the country — almost 7,000 airings — in one of the most fiercely fought races.

But there is a twist. The contest also has one of the most lopsided ratios of negative-to-positive ads, with Mr. Barr and aligned Republican groups spending more than $3 million in the relatively inexpensive Lexington media market in the past six weeks, overwhelmingly on spots attacking Ms. McGrath.

Ms. McGrath, so far, has not run attack ads against Mr. Barr, an approach that makes this contest a laboratory to test the long-held proposition that while voters find negative ads distasteful, candidates use them because they work.

It’s not that McGrath didn’t respond to the attacks. She had a pretty good comeback, asking Barr, “Is that all you’ve got?”

But as Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky suggested, Barr and McGrath were basically fighting over McGrath’s image, which means that she was mostly playing defense.

Frankly, I respect the hell out of what McGrath was trying to do. As she said, she wanted to win the right way. But when/if she runs against McConnell, she’s going to need to ask fellow Kentuckians to take a hard look at their senator—even as she demonstrates that she will do a better job of representing them.

That is clearly not something Matt Jones would have any trouble doing.

As a radio host, Jones has made a living taking aim at the people that he sees as Kentucky’s bullies, from Pitino to Bevin. “This is a guy who lives to annoy elites, This is a guy who lives to offend the haughty,” says Adam Edelen, Kentucky’s former state auditor and Jones’ New Kentucky Project co-founder. Jones says McConnell is the biggest bully of all, one who he alone has the platform, the policy expertise and the brazen confidence to take down.

Frankly, if it came down to a Democratic primary between McGrath and Jones, I’d have a hard time deciding who to support if I lived in Kentucky. I’d love to see a strong woman like McGrath take McConnell down. But there is no way that a serious challenge to the Senate Majority Leader is going to be anything but a bare-knuckled brawl. It is clear that Jones would be ready for that. I suspect McGrath could do it, too. But she’d have to be ready to make the race a referendum on the man who has consistently put his own power over the interests of the people of Kentucky. That’s not simply about going negative. It’s about telling the truth.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.