Mark Nickolas, the campaign manager for Kentucky congressional candidate Amy McGrath, took a late flight on April 25 to have breakfast the next morning on Capitol Hill with a top political strategist at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The contested primary was more than three weeks away, but the conversation centered on general-election strategy: how McGrath, a retired Marine fighter pilot, could best take on Republican Rep. Andy Barr in November.
It was a meeting that would have been unremarkable, except that it signaled a stunning reversal by the same national Democrats who recruited Lexington Mayor Jim Gray into the primary in December, four months after McGrath launched a credible, well-funded campaign.
“They thought they had a better option,” Nickolas said. “I wanted to show them that they made a mistake, and I think I succeeded at it.”
That behind-the-scenes maneuvering, which incensed McGrath’s team and instantly relegated her to underdog status, led to a multimillion-dollar primary battle. Top Kentucky Democrats watching the race now say McGrath is at least slightly favored in Tuesday’s primary against the well-known and wealthy mayor of the district’s largest city who boasts high name ID from a 2016 Senate run.
Though Gray started as the overwhelming favorite, McGrath has since caught him in internal polling, outpaced him in total TV ad spending, and built a formidable ground game in the district’s rural counties to counter his support in the major cities.
“He’s underestimating me,” McGrath said in a Monday phone interview between campaign events. “I just think the DCCC sometimes is disconnected with real America. It’s sad that they recruited him, but we’re going around them.”
In what is perhaps an acknowledgement of McGrath’s late surge, Gray, after largely ignoring her for much of the nearly six-month primary, released an eleventh-hour attack ad Friday that accused her of being a carpetbagger. The spot drew public criticism from veterans’ groups and Rep. Ted Lieu of California, a DCCC vice chairman.
“At the moment, she’s got the momentum,” said Terry McBrayer, a former Kentucky Democratic Party chairman who is friendly with both candidates. “The big question is whether he can pull it off and stop that. His name recognition is better, but she’s gained name recognition in a big way.”
McGrath’s insurgent campaign stayed largely positive, using her compelling history—as the first female Marine to fly in an F-18 fighter jet in combat—to tap into a national donor base and raise her profile. Eventually she won tacit support from a Democratic establishment that initially insisted that her opponent would be the stronger foil against Barr.
McGrath retired from the Marines to run for Congress only after receiving assurances from Gray in the spring of 2017 that he was not interested in running. But the committee repeatedly urged Gray to enter the race, according to multiple sources, hoping to capitalize on his high approval ratings and ability to self-fund—much to the chagrin of prominent Democrats allied with McGrath who warned the committee that it was creating an unnecessarily costly contest.
At the start of the primary, McGrath and her allies made no secret of their disdain for the DCCC’s meddling and hit Gray as a pawn of the establishment. Her campaign even considered going nuclear on the national party that burned them. It spent $17,000 to film a video on Nickolas’s Woodford County farm where McGrath, direct-to-camera, bashed “party bosses for choosing the same, old, unelectable candidates.” But her campaign team scrapped it.
Initial polling indicated that there was a hunger in the district for someone with her background and message, a political outsider and military veteran. Still, McGrath started out with 44 percent name ID, while Gray had 92 percent.
By February, Nickolas watched with apprehension as the DCCC tore into Texas congressional candidate Laura Moser, whom it deemed unviable in the general. He initiated contact with the committee—for the first time since Gray entered—and shared recent internal general-election polling to blunt that argument against his candidate. McGrath trailed the incumbent by 4 points, while Gray was up 2 points, though less than half the electorate was familiar with McGrath.
Nickolas asked the campaign pollster, Fred Yang, to brief the DCCC political team on the full findings, which he did in a mid-March phone call. The committee acknowledged that McGrath would be a credible nominee, according to a source familiar the call.
Tensions continued to thaw; Jason Bresler, the DCCC’s political director, texted frequently with Nickolas during the past couple of months. And in May, McGrath received donations from Democratic Rep. Lois Frankel and from Rep. Cheri Bustos’s leadership PAC. They are the first members to contribute since Gray entered the race, according to McGrath’s campaign.
When reached for comment, DCCC spokesman Jacob Peters said: “It is common and expected for us to be in regular contact with Democratic campaigns running in targeted districts. Rep. Andy Barr is one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country.”
Privately, some Kentucky Democrats attribute McGrath’s rise, in part, to a series of missteps by the Gray campaign. Though he has personal wealth, he invested relatively little in his campaign and let McGrath outspend him on the air every week in April. In fundraising emails, Gray trained his focus on Barr, rarely using a primary threat to persuade donors to write checks.
But Jamie Emmons, Gray’s campaign manager, disputed that narrative.
“Of course, we took it seriously, we raised and spent a million-and-a-half dollars. That’s a very serious primary,” Emmons said, adding that the campaign’s recent internal polling showed Gray in the lead.
Multiple internal polls conducted as late as early March showed McGrath trailing Gray by more than 30 points. Then, an April internal poll by McGrath’s campaign surprised even her staunchest allies—she led Gray by 7 points, a swing of more than 50 points from its December primary poll. Her name ID shot up nearly 40 points to 83 percent, and her favorables more than doubled to 64 percent.
It was the results of that poll that precipitated Nickolas’s meeting with the DCCC.
“Conventional wisdom tells you Jim Gray should be winning and winning big,” said a national Democratic source based in Kentucky granted anonymity to speak candidly. “David and Goliath is what this is. It should never have been happening.”
McGrath and Gray spent more than $550,000 apiece in April alone. If she wins Tuesday, McGrath admitted she will start with very little in her campaign coffers, but said the fierce primary battle helped hone her skills.
“It’s kind of like you do the minor leagues before you get into the major leagues,” she said.
Correction: This story originally misstated the results of an internal poll for Amy McGrath’s campaign. Jim Gray was up 2 points on Andy Barr, not down 2.