Kentucky letdown: No blue wave for Amy McGrath in the Bluegrass State

In Kentucky's 6th district, Rep. Andy Barr squeaked out a fourth term. Can blue voters keep the faith?

By Erin Keane

Editor in Chief

Published November 7, 2018 12:45PM (EST)

Deanna Tracy of Anderson County, Kentucky, sports a Maker's Mark bourbon "liberal" pin on election day.  (Erin Keane)
Deanna Tracy of Anderson County, Kentucky, sports a Maker's Mark bourbon "liberal" pin on election day. (Erin Keane)

RICHMOND, Ky. — In the end, it wasn't enough for Amy McGrath — veteran, military trailblazer, fresh face unburdened by a long record in state politics or Washington, and "hell yes," as she proudly proclaimed, a feminist — to bring three-term incumbent Andy Barr to the brink. With 47 percent of the vote to Barr's 50.9, McGrath ultimately failed to turn Kentucky's 6th, a bellwether congressional district that has been red since 2013, back to blue.

Last week, the New York Times had moved the prognostication dial to pretty much a dead heat between Barr and McGrath, who raised an impressive amount of money for a race widely considered a harbinger of the blue wave Democrats were hoping to roll across the country in a national referendum on Donald Trump's presidency. Barr beat his last opponent by 22 points in 2016, so for the race to be too close to call going into the polls on Tuesday was already a victory of sorts for Kentucky Democrats.

For the first couple of hours, the McGrath election night party at Eastern Kentucky University's Center for the Arts felt like one. Drinks were flowing from the bar and spirits were high. The occasional rolling whoop cut through the excited chatter when favorable returns would update a key race on the TV screens, and chants of "Amy, Amy, Amy!" were carried by a distinctly female-leaning chorus in the elbow-to-shoulder standing-room-only lobby. NBC called the race for Barr a few minutes shy of 8:30 p.m. I heard a man somewhere behind me in the crowd utter one word: "Unfuckingbelievable." His companion echoed him, adding, "I've lost all faith in this state."

But when McGrath emerged an hour later, she urged her supporters to stay resilient. "We can lick our wounds tonight, but just tonight. Let's shake it off in the morning, get back on the horse, and resume our work for a more perfect union."

Novelist Silas House, who lives in the district and campaigned for McGrath (and is an occasional Salon contributor), told me at the end of the night that he felt Barr's victory was yet another victory for Trump.

"It solidifies that support for a president I find objectionable in every way," he said. "And especially objectionable against the way that I was raised as a Kentuckian. He stands for everything that we stood against: greed, arrogance, vulgarity."

"As a Kentuckian, your whole life you're told by the whole country that it's a hopeless place, and that you're worthless." House's voice choked up, but he pressed on with what he had to say. "To have a candidate who gave so much hope to people and see her lose to a candidate who, in my opinion, just kowtows to Donald Trump and hasn't done anything for my district that I know of, that's really disheartening."

House acknowledged that the support McGrath generated was encouraging for the state, but, "I wanted it to be enough."

In the end it wasn't. But women voters I spoke to on Tuesday, both in rural Lawrenceburg, on the western edge of the district, and in the city of Lexington, appeared energized to reject Trump's rhetoric and his fear-mongering over immigration, as well as the GOP's attacks on abortion and attempts to block progress for LGBTQ rights. In a state painted broadly red by the election maps, there's individual resistance to the party of Trump across the state. It wasn't enough for the Democrats to win this time, but neither is it nothing.

*  *  *

Tuesday was the kind of autumn day that shows Kentucky at its prettiest angles on the drive east from Louisville, as the suburbs melt away and the farmland hills start rolling for real, their flame-red trees licking the clear blue sky. For an election day that soaked up the collective anxieties and angers that have built up in the country over the last two years, I expected relatively little drama at home in Louisville: frequent Trump critic Rep. John Yarmuth and Mayor Greg Fischer, both Democrats, were shoo-ins to retain their seats, part of what makes Louisville and Jefferson County so far a reliable blue island in a red state. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can't eat a plate of pasta in public these days without being heckled by his own neighbors — when they're not staging die-ins on the sidewalk in front of his house. So I drove east to see how the dead heat between Barr and McGrath would shake out.

McGrath seems to be the type of Democrat tailor-made to tackle the Trump era — as a retired officer and the first woman to fly in an F-18 in combat, she has impeccable military and national security bona fides, and she presents as a no-nonsense political newcomer in a time when "establishment" is a poison label. She campaigned on positivity, not doom and gloom, and doggedly tried to  stay above the mudslinging fray in the era of "Lock her up!" Meanwhile, Barr painted McGrath as "too liberal for Kentucky" because she's "a radical progressive" who has proudly said, "Hell yeah, I'm a feminist."

Both President Trump and his eldest son, Donald Jr., traveled to Kentucky in the last week to do some last-minute campaigning for Barr, with the senior Trump calling McGrath "an extreme liberal chosen by Nancy Pelosi, Maxine Waters, and the radical Democratic mob," which is a stretch to say the least. But who's counting?

The 6th is a tricky district, encompassing the city of Lexington, where the University of Kentucky resides, and much of central Kentucky's bourbon distillery and thoroughbred horse-farm country, and also stretching to the Appalachian mountains. McGrath's campaign for "country over party" seemed a savvy play for a district that defies easy labels, and includes many rural counties that went hard for Trump in 2016 -- where "Hell yeah, I'm a feminist" may not resonate -- within its borders.

One of those counties that voted overwhelmingly for Trump was Anderson, which includes the town of Lawrenceburg, about an hour's drive east down I-64 from Louisville on the district's western edge. On the hilly drive through state route 151 toward town, past horse and Angus cattle farms that proclaim their names on proud signs by the front gates, neat brick ranch homes and the turn-off for Four Roses Bourbon Distillery, campaign signs for Barr outnumbered McGrath two to one. That didn't surprise me; in 2016 Anderson County cast more than 8,000 votes for Trump, to 2,400 for Hillary Clinton, with Barr retaining his seat over his Democratic challenger by about the same margin.

I expected to hear from conservative women outside of the polls at Anderson Middle School. But when two women I stopped to talk to didn't think that I would have to ask who they voted for, I was stumped. "Look at us," Deanna Tracy demanded, with a smile and a flourish.

I did, but I wasn't sure what to look for. They were white women, and that could go either way in a conservative county. One wore red, but both were in plain cardigans, not campaign shirts. In a political climate as fraught with anger and tension as ours, I didn't want to offend them by guessing wrong.

"Amy McGrath," the each said in turn. They're lifelong Democrats, as it turns out, in a county that does still have some of those. But Tracy and her friend Karen Warford didn't punch a straight ticket just out of party obligation; they were excited to vote for McGrath and enthusiastic about her candidacy. Warford, for her part, said she always votes for a Democrat and a woman, if she can.

"Women have a harder time — they have to work harder to get where they need to be, and I'm for hard work," she said.

And Tracy pointed out she has nothing in common with Barr, "morally, politically," and even, she said with a laugh, "genetically."

Tracy and Warford told me they know they're in the minority in their community, and these days in the state at large. They're not sure how they got there, either, but both say that what they describe as "old-school Democrats" in Kentucky appear to feel threatened by the conservative pull of the state and have reacted by moving in a more centrist, conservative-leaning direction in order to compete with Republicans in districts the Democrats once owned.

They don't understand how Kentucky went so red it voted for Donald Trump. Tracy said, "Anybody who stands with Donald Trump, I stand against."

Warford remembers campaigning when she was "this high" for her grandfather and her father, both county elected officials. "It was always about working for the people, and being there for those that needed help," she said. "It was for the average person out there working hard that needed things to go their way."

That's when I finally see the indicator of her vote that Tracy might have been referring to: Holding a rust-red ribbon in place around her neck is a small enamel pin in the shape of a Maker's Mark bourbon bottle, labeled with the word "LIBERAL." It's a relic from an ad campaign that depicts both sides of the aisle by the amount of wax on the individually dipped bottles. (Bourbon is a bipartisan pursuit in Kentucky.) It's a small and subtle sign, but it's out there, the signature red wax of the Maker's seal dripping like a wound in the dead center of her throat.

I circle around the middle school and find the entrance to the cafeteria and gym, where the polling stations are set up just past a mural in the shape of the American flag, sort of — crowning the red and white stripes there's a solid blue Kentucky where the field of stars usually is, and inside of that, a little white cut-out in the shape of Anderson County as the heart of the state. It's bustling at 2 p.m., but no long lines or visible frustration. Everything inside appears to be moving like clockwork.

In the parking lot, Samantha Montgomery, who drove 60 miles that day to vote in person, showed off her "I Voted" sticker. As it turns out, she too voted for McGrath.

Montgomery told me she likes that McGrath is a woman, but she also likes what she stands for.

"I wanted to keep an open mind and change things up," Montgomery said. "I'm a Democrat, but I'm also open-minded to different options. I hope things change a bit, and we have to take part each time to make sure they do, because I'm not currently happy with the way things are, and I'll leave it at that."

If you aren't familiar with how women in the South sometimes talk -- that last part? Is a thing we like to say when in fact we have a lot more to say. (If you stick around it will rarely, in fact, be left at that.) Montgomery's great-grandmother was a suffragette, as it turns out, and her grandmother taught her from an early age that since women once had to fight for the right to vote, "you always vote."

Hell yes, feminists. I asked Montgomery if Trump had anything to do with her vote.

"I voted last time and I really didn't think there was any chance [Trump] would ever win, but he did, so it is what it is," Montgomery said. "So I'm going to keep voting to try to improve things, so people are more open to taking care of everyone."

I took my chances on a woman who wrangling a tornado of three kids under 10 out of the school. It turned out they were more than happy to answer for her when I asked if she would mind sharing her vote.

"WE VOTED FOR AMY McGRATH!" Brienna Miller's kids yelled in chorus. As soon as she stopped to talk to me, they shot off for an impromptu game of tag. Miller told me the two main issues that brought her to McGrath were immigration and abortion.

"It's our body and our choice. Regardless of the circumstances," said Miller. "We need a woman in there who's strong, who knows what she stands for."

Miller is also the first U.S.-born citizen in her family on her mother's side, so to her, "immigration is a big deal," and she doesn't believe Trump's wall "is going to do anything."

"My grandpa, his family came from Ukraine, he ended up in Canada, so he emigrated from Canada. My nana and my mom are from New Zealand, and they're all here legally," she said. "Immigration is such a tough topic. There's a right way to do it and there's a wrong way."

"There needs to be a middle ground," she added. "People do deserve to be treated fairly, and not live in fear of being killed by a cartel or what have you."

I didn't even get through my question about whether Trump's performance in office motivated her to vote before she burst out laughing.

"Definitely. He's a dumbass," she said. "The people who are trying to come here now are trying to come here for reasons, to get away from things, [so] don't sit there and send troops to the border . . . to try to stop these people when they're just looking for help. Help them instead. It's not that hard."

"Stop being a jackass and stop lying all the time," Miller added. "We won't go any further than that."

Since she already suggested a contortionist move Trump could try involving his head and another part of his body, we actually did leave it at that.

I took the back highway the rest of the way to Lexington, and when I turned out of the school parking lot,  more and more McGrath signs revealed themselves until by my count she and Barr, at least on the referendum of this road, with its white and black painted three-rail fences guarding farms with names like Emerald Crest and Trackside flashing by, and the Wild Turkey distillery warehouses standing guard, appeared to be neck and neck.

In Lexington, I met Jillian Pruitt and Meredith Hitz heading into a school to vote, in a historic city neighborhood near Transylvania University. Unlike most of the folks I approach in Lexington, they're willing to stop and talk. Hitz had already voted for McGrath earlier, and Pruitt was on her way to cast her ballot. Neither wanted to see Republicans stall momentum for LGBTQ rights, or roll them back.

"I'm a gay woman so I stick to people who aren't against that," said Pruitt.

"It's definitely hard. Both of our fathers are Republicans and are both avid Trump supporters, and that's something we're very much against — and a lot of people are very much against, especially in Lexington," said Hitz. "We're both gay and it's hard sometimes leaving Lexington because it's a very safe bubble here, a very safe diverse community."

"The rest of Kentucky isn't the same," Hitz continued. "We can go to Richmond and we get stared at, and sometimes we can't even hold hands. We can get kicked out of a restaurant in Georgetown if they felt like it. It's frustrating. Lexington's made a lot of progress, I like where it's going. Make it safe for everyone, not just us."

*  *  *

In the end, McGrath won Lexington — that safe, diverse bubble — by a comfortable margin. But Fayette County was one of only two of the district's 19 counties she carried — she also won Franklin County, where Frankfort, the state capital, lies. Some margins were smaller than others. In the end, she lost Anderson by more than half. The opposition to the GOP and to Trump is here. It just wasn't enough.

After McGrath's concession speech, journalist Jason Howard told me -- with Silas House, his husband, by his side -- that he was disheartened by the number of rural counties she lost, where the Affordable Care Act, which Barr has voted to repeal, has created a lifeline for health insurance coverage for many low-income Kentuckians.

"She was the most viable candidate to come out of this district in a while and it begs the question of what are people thinking," said Howard. "It leaves a lot of us in Kentucky, and in this district, wondering what to do and how to rectify this, because Andy Barr is the president's lap dog and has been for a long time."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Mayor Greg Fischer's name. This story has been updated. 

By Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Chief Content Officer. She is also on faculty at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University and her memoir in essays, "Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me," was named one of NPR's Books We Loved In 2022.

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2018 Midterm Elections Amy Mcgrath Andy Barr Elections 2018 Kentucky