Mitch McConnell's Opponent Amy McGrath is Counting on His Unpopularity to Overcome Long-Shot Odds in Senate Race

Amy McGrath is hedging her entire campaign against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on lightning striking twice in Kentucky—that is, a Democrat going up against a deeply unpopular Republican incumbent and winning.

The 44-year-old former Marine is counting on McConnell's unpopularity—polls show he's one of the single least-liked lawmakers in the country—to turn his seat blue this November. After all, deep dissatisfaction with Republican Governor Matt Bevin was enough to get him ousted from office in 2019.

"People in Kentucky know that he doesn't care about them and they want him gone. They're tired of him," McGrath said about McConnell during an interview with Newsweek.

"I think against an unpopular incumbent, a Democrat can win here. That's what the governor's race showed. And Mitch McConnell is not well-liked here."

But McConnell is no Bevin. The 78-year-old Republican leader is the most powerful lawmaker on Capitol Hill, President Donald Trump's right-hand man and one of the most prolific fundraisers in politics.

Plus, disdain for his leadership has never stopped him from winning re-election. He's served six straight terms since entering Congress in 1984. The last Democrat to go up against him in Kentucky lost by a 15-point margin in 2014.

Still, McGrath is betting on her own popularity as a way in. She argues that McConnell has played his hand one too many times, showing Kentuckians "over and over again" that he "cares more about his own political party and his own power" than his constituents.

She's coming off a star-making candidacy from the 2018 midterm election cycle. McGrath was catapulted to the national stage on the strength of a viral biographical ad highlighting her military service and family background. She was the first female Marine to fly an F-18 in a combat mission. Her mother, a polio survivor, was one of the first women to graduate from the University of Kentucky College of Medicine. While she ultimately lost the congressional race to Republican Andy Barr, she was defeated by less than 3 points—an indication that Democrats could perform well in the deep-red state even before Bevin's downfall.

It also doesn't hurt that she has been personally recruited by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to go up against McConnell and has been backed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the largest fundraising operation for the chamber. Their support, plus her fundraising and standing in the polls, shows she could be the most formidable opponent come November.

Surveys conducted earlier this year showed her either tied with McConnell or trailing him by single digits. A Change Research poll had the two candidates deadlocked at 41 percent support among likely voters. Another survey from Garin-Hart-Yang showed McConnell ahead by 3 percentage points—although his victory was within the poll's margin of error.

McGrath has also proven she can match McConnell in fundraising. She outraised the incumbent by $5 million from January to March, according to the latest campaign finance data. In terms of overall cash on hand, the two are separated by just a few thousand dollars: McConnell currently has $14.9 million in the bank compared with McGrath's $14.7 million. Their race, if McGrath wins the Democratic nomination, is expected to be the most expensive of the 2020 cycle.

"Senator McConnell has always won in the past because he's had a bigger blow horn. He's always had tens of millions of dollars more than his opponent," McGrath said. "What our fundraising shows is that we have a tremendous amount of grassroots support. That's something Mitch McConnell hasn't gone against before."

Her campaign says it's raised even more money since McConnell became the face of the federal government's response to the coronavirus pandemic. In the month of April alone, McGrath raked in $5 million in donations. Her team said a lot of the cash came in after McConnell's inflammatory comment about letting states go bankrupt instead of offering them more financial relief.

"It's just pure McConnell," McGrath said of the senator's handling of the coronavirus pandemic. It wasn't a compliment.

Some of his failures, she argued, included holding up the first round of legislation to ensure pharmaceutical companies could gouge prices on coronavirus vaccines. She also criticized McConnell over tax changes included in the historic $2 trillion CARES Act that largely benefit millionaires, and for the lack of oversight on the $500 billion given to mid-sized and large businesses in federal aid. McGrath called the relief program a "slush fund" for big corporations.

"Then when state and local governments—who basically employ our firefighters, policemen, health care workers, teachers—say we need help, what does Mitch McConnell do? He said, 'Well you guys should just go bankrupt.' I mean seriously?" McGrath said. "We'd never be talking about Senator McGrath saying anything about state and local governments should be going bankrupt. I'd never even think about it."

But before she can directly challenge McConnell for his Senate seat, she has to get through the state's Democratic primary on June 23. Her two biggest rivals include Mike Broihier, a farmer and retired lieutenant colonel with the Marines, and Charles Booker, a state legislator from Louisville.

The two have pressed McGrath for not being progressive enough. Broihier described her platform as "empty." Booker said the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's decision to back her is "complete disrespect to the people of Kentucky."

McGrath, despite claiming in her 2018 bid that she was "more progressive" than anyone in Kentucky, has largely stayed in the center where her competitors have jumped to the left. She backs Obamacare but doesn't support a single-payer health care system like Medicare for All. She supports income equality but doesn't go so far as Booker and Broihier, who back a monthly universal basic income.

McGrath fended off the criticism from her progressive opponents, matter-of-factly stating she's a "common sense Kentucky Democrat" who can get things done for residents.

amy mcgrath election night loss 2018
Amy McGrath address supporters after her loss during her Election Night Event at the EKU Center for the Arts on November 6, 2018, in Richmond, Kentucky. McGrath is running to unseat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Jason Davis/Getty

Staying in the middle of the road could be a winning strategy for McGrath if she makes it out of the Democratic primary. Her 2018 race was in a more purple district, whereas the state of Kentucky is reliably red: It went to Trump in 2016 by more than 30 points. And with the president at the top of the ballot this year, it'll be hard to imagine a candidate winning the Senate seat without gaining a good portion of his supporters.

But McGrath's moderate approach has hit the occasional snag, as her inconsistency on some issues has drawn criticism from both sides of the aisle. Last year she drew heat over her comments on Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. First, she said she would have supported his confirmation. Hours later she walked back the remark.

Any slip from McGrath is likely to be seized on by McConnell, whose re-election strategy almost always involves piling on attacks against his opponents. In 2014, he spent more than $30 million on ads against an opponent he beat by a wide margin. In his latest statewide advertising blitz, McConnell slammed McGrath for using the coronavirus crisis to spend "millions on false partisan attacks."

"McGrath fuels fear with lies even liberal newspapers call false. But while Amy McGrath lies, Mitch McConnell leads," one ad said.

McGrath has held her own in McConnell's ad war, refusing to stop airing clips even when the Senate Majority Leader called for a cease-fire amid the coronavirus pandemic. The two have spent millions on radio and television spots since the summer of 2019—an entire year before the November election.

"I've built a team to be able to take him on in the way he needs to be taken on to be defeated. We're working very hard to do that," McGrath said.

"We can get him out. We can actually do some very practical things that can help people's lives and make life better for Kentuckians and that's what I'm all about."