How Democrats Created a Pricey Primary in Kentucky

The party continued to recruit after a well-funded contender had already emerged in the 6th District.

Lexington, Ky., Mayor Jim Gray
AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley
Ally Mutnick
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Ally Mutnick
Dec. 7, 2017, 4:53 p.m.

Democrat Amy McGrath, the first female Marine to fly in an F-18 fighter jet in combat, had the kind of first week in August that first-time congressional candidates only dream about—a viral introductory YouTube video with more than 1 million views, $400,000 in donations, and a barrage of headlines from national news outlets.

But Lexington Mayor Jim Gray launched a bid this week after what multiple sources described as months of entreaties from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Gray is popular and personally wealthy, and, after performing well in the area during an unsuccessful challenge to Sen. Rand Paul last year, he starts as the heavy favorite to win the nomination in May.

Still, Gray faces an expensive intraparty battle against a well-funded opponent with a compelling personal story. And the efforts to draft him have infuriated veteran Democrats allied with McGrath who say the party created an avoidable primary problem in a central Kentucky seat that is already rocky terrain.

“I hate to see them treat a very serious, attractive candidate such as Amy McGrath with their backhand,” former DCCC Chairman Martin Frost said, stressing that he tried to dissuade a high-ranking member of House Democratic leadership from pursuing Gray after McGrath’s launch.

“They knew she was a serious candidate,” said Frost, who encouraged McGrath to run after meeting her during a visit to the Naval Academy, where she taught. “They have created a competitive primary and they’re going to have to live with the results.”

The 6th District has been a Democratic target since Republican Rep. Andy Barr unseated then-Rep. Ben Chandler in 2012, and Gray, who carried the district by 4 points in his Senate bid, has long been viewed as a top contender. It may be the closest the state has to a swing seat, though it backed Donald Trump by 15 points.

McGrath met with Gray in the spring as she discussed her prospective bid with top Kentucky Democrats. At the time, Gray said he was not interested in the race, according to people who were in the room. McGrath then retired from the Marines in June, left her teaching post in Annapolis, and moved back to her native Kentucky.

Her viral campaign-launch video created a fundraising and social-media surge. By December, she’d hired nine paid staffers and raised more than $1 million, with the vast majority of donations totaling $50 or less.

But even as McGrath’s candidacy appeared to skyrocket, her campaign quickly realized that national Democrats were still courting Gray. Multiple sources close to the campaign said DCCC officials or House Democratic leadership told them there was still an effort to entice Gray into the race, citing his high name recognition, local roots, and ability to self-fund.

“If it were anybody but Jim running, I think she’d be a very, very strong, competitive candidate,” said Rep. John Yarmuth, the lone Democrat in the Kentucky delegation, who said the DCCC asked him to help recruit Gray. “But he just starts off with such a head start. When you’re a two-term mayor and you have over 70 percent job approval, it’s unbelievable.”

Yarmuth also noted that McGrath recently moved back to the district after years out of state, which could become an issue in the general election.

In an interview, DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Lujan praised both candidates, highlighting Gray’s local support and work on infrastructure and McGrath’s military service. When asked if the committee recruited Gray after McGrath entered the race in the hopes of landing a stronger candidate, Lujan remained vague but cited the party’s ultimate goal next year.

“We’ll always continue to reach out to folks, especially if they’re looking to run to help us win back the House,” he said. “I want to make sure I’m chatting with them.”

Last month, the committee notably left McGrath off its Red-to-Blue program, which acknowledges and rewards campaigns that show fundraising prowess, strong infrastructure, and grassroots engagement.

Gray said in an interview Wednesday that he had been considering the race for some time, but made his final decision to run over the past week and a half. He did not specifically confirm any recruitment efforts by the DCCC, and described local support as a crucial motivator.

“I got encouragement from a lot of people,” he said. “Most of the people I got encouragement from are right here at home, and that was what drove my decision.”

Yet interviews with Democrats in Kentucky paint a months-long behind-the-scenes effort from House Democrats.

Part of this courtship included polling. Sources unaffiliated with either campaign who spoke with Gray or his top staff after McGrath had entered the race said the Gray campaign acknowledged that the committee was wooing him with polling that showed him holding a significant lead over Barr.

Several constituents, including a teacher at McGrath’s child’s school, informed McGrath and her staff that they had received an automated phone poll in November testing a race between Gray and Barr, according to the campaign. The recording clearly identified the poll as originating from the DCCC.

In a call with a DCCC official this week after Gray declared, Frost said he was told the committee had polled twice—one primary poll showed Gray leading McGrath and state Sen. Reggie Thomas, and a second survey found Gray leading Barr in a general-election matchup. A head-to-head of McGrath and Barr was not tested, Frost said.

A source familiar with that polling said the primary survey showed Gray with a large, double-digit lead over McGrath. Outside pollsters also conducted a live-caller poll in July that tested Gray and Barr in a general election. It showed similar results to the DCCC’s November survey, the source said.

McGrath allies acknowledge that Gray, who was Kentucky’s first openly gay Senate candidate, is impressive. He has a reputation as a problem-solver and was able to invest $2.5 million into his Senate bid last year. Though Gray would not definitively say whether he would self-fund in this race, he said his team intends “to have the resources to execute a robust campaign.”

But McGrath’s massive war chest ensures Gray is in for a competitive primary. Her campaign has promised to fight fiercely for the nomination, and it has the resources to raise her name recognition and communicate her message.

On paper, McGrath is the kind of candidate House Democrats have touted this cycle. A female veteran and political outsider, she ended a two-decade career in the Marines out of a desire to serve as a check on Trump.

“We’ve got one of the best teams in the country on this race. We’ve got 13,000 donors and raised more than a million in three months,” said Mark Nickolas, McGrath’s campaign manager. “What about her candidacy doesn’t excite you?”

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