By Hastings Wyman –
US Rep. Andy Barr (R), in his third term, is facing potentially serious opposition in this year when many Republican officeholders are facing an uncertain future. There are three major candidates vying in the Democratic Primary for the party nomination to challenge Barr in November. Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, Lt. Col. Amy McGrath and state Sen. Reggie Thomas are all heavyweight contenders, though their prospects are not equally bright in the May 22 primary.
The Democratic frontrunner, though not a lead-pipe cinch, is Lexington’s two-term mayor and industrialist Jim Gray, who is openly gay. He challenged US Sen. Rand Paul (R) in 2016, and while he lost the election, he carried the 6th District by 51% in a year in which Donald Trump won the district by 15 points.
Among Gray’s other assets, he was CEO of his family’s company, Gray Construction, a major business which contributes significantly to the area’s economy. One example of the Gray company’s capability is that it built the Toyota plant in Kentucky, which is the largest Toyota manufacturing facility in the world.
Because of his wealth, Gray was able to contribute some $2.5 million to help finance his 2016 US Senate campaign. He has raised a significant war chest since he entered the congressional race, but in any case, were he to win the primary, he could begin financing a General Election campaign immediately, which the others probably could not do.
When he announced, Gray cited healthcare, the rising cost of education and stagnant wages as key issues. He also noted that as mayor of Lexington, he accomplished the moving of two Confederate statues from the Old Fayette Courthouse lawn to Lexington Cemetery.
“Jim Gray is hardwired to win this district back for the Democrats,” says Dale Emmons, a Democratic consultant with ties to Gray.
Amy McGrath, 42, moved to the district last year after 20 years absence in the military. She grew up in Northern Kentucky and is a graduate of the Air Force Academy. Lt. Col. McGrath is a former Marine Corps fighter pilot, the first ever.
In response to those who criticize her as a newcomer to the district, McGrath has said, “I would have loved to have been able to live in this district the last 20 years… I spent a year of my life living in a tent in the Middle East.” She added, “I’m very much an outsider… [but] there’s a large percentage of voters that are kind of tired of business as usual.”
The McGrath campaign has come out of the gate fast. She made a tremendous air buy, including a local spot for the first game of the NCAA, which “cost them a bunch of money,” says longtime Kentucky political journalist Al Cross, money they probably figured, as new to the district, they had to spend.
The McGrath people say she’s a better candidate in the fall, probably because, with her military background, she appeals more to registered Democrats who have been voting Republican. And it may be a good year for outsiders.
State Sen. Thomas may have a shot if the top two Democrats, Gray and McGrath, divide the electorate and allow Thomas to slip in with a plurality. Thomas has an impressive resume, with an undergraduate degree from the Ivy League’s Dartmouth plus a law degree from Harvard Law School. An African American, he teaches at historically black Kentucky State University in addition to practicing law. Moreover, says Cross, “He meets well. He’s a good politician.” Says consultant Emmons, “Reggie Thomas is well thought of.”
There are negatives to each of the contenders. McGrath’s newness to the district, Thomas’ weak fundraising, and the perception that Gray is almost an incumbent in a year that favors outsiders.
In addition, says Cross,
“Being black doesn’t help.
“Being gay doesn’t help.
“Being a woman doesn’t help.”
Moreover, Gray may be a bit too cosmopolitan for this district of mid-size cities and rural areas. While Thomas isn’t likely to win the primary, he could take votes away from Gray, who has always run well in the black community. The district is about 8.7% black, which could amount to double that in a Democratic Primary.
Just how vulnerable is incumbent Barr? He votes with the Republicans in the US House, and that’s probably not such a bad thing in this conservative district, especially given the strength of the economy. But that also means being allied with President Trump. While Trump’s performance rating has been rising, his reputation as a person is not strong.
If the November campaigns are nationalized and revolve around Trump, several factors in the district could hurt the GOP. There are two universities here, which isn’t good news for Trump allies. Moreover, voters in this district are more prosperous, better educated and more suburban than in other Kentucky districts, hardly part of Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” that usually stick with Trump come what may.
In addition, Barr catches some flak for his lackadaisical response to constituents’ request for assistance in dealing with the federal bureaucracy, criticism which has shown up several times in letters to the editor.
In sum, in the Democratic Primary, Jim Gray is the best bet, but not a sure bet. In the General Election, Barr is favored but his 6th District is the most likely in Kentucky to flip from Red to Blue. Stay tuned.