Most important, though, she’ll have to persuade a sizable number of Trump voters in Kentucky’s redder regions to fill in the bubble beside her name next November. And parroting Trump’s catchphrases while avoiding endorsing his policies puts the Democrat in a slippery situation. “She has to be very careful in playing that angle,” Yarmuth said. “She cannot give the impression that she’s supporting the Trump agenda.” Scott Jennings, a GOP strategist who has worked on McConnell’s previous reelection campaigns, echoed the lawmaker’s sentiment. “You’re talking about trying to thread a needle so tight,” he told me. “You’d have to be the most skilled political person out there, and she’s already proven she’s not.”
Jennings cited a Wednesday interview where McGrath appeared to already be struggling to walk the line between appealing to Trump voters and betraying her party. The Kentucky Democrat told the Courier Journal that she “probably” would have voted to confirm Trump’s second’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, last fall. “There was nothing in his record that I think would disqualify him in any way,” she said. But later that night, McGrath changed her mind, tweeting: “I was asked earlier today about Judge Brett Kavanaugh, and I answered based upon his qualifications to be on the Supreme Court,” she wrote. “But upon further reflection and further understanding of his record, I would have voted no.”
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The flip-flop is bound to strike many Kentuckians as inauthentic, Jennings said: “I’d be shocked if she didn’t have a primary.” He predicted that another Democrat, such as the Lexington-based sports-radio host Matt Jones, might run against her. “I don’t think she’s up to this based on her earlier performance,” he told me. Even Yarmuth yesterday said that McGrath’s Kavanaugh mistake was “pretty significant,” and suggested that a primary challenge “might be helpful.”
Democrats have gotten their hopes up before. The party keeps putting up challengers to Republican incumbents in red states, and those incumbents keep on winning. Last fall, despite gaining national attention for their races in Texas, Georgia, and Florida, the rising Democrats Beto O’Rourke, Stacey Abrams, and Andrew Gillum all lost their respective elections in the South.
McConnell himself easily overcame what was supposed to be a steep challenge back in 2014 from Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Kentucky secretary of state. What’s to stop McGrath from falling flat in the same way? The fact that McGrath failed to win in Kentucky’s Sixth district—which is more favorable to Democrats than Kentucky as a whole—doesn’t bode well for her 2020 statewide bid.
However, because it’s a general-election year, this election will also have a higher turnout than for McGrath’s midterm challenge to Barr. Her military background and baggage-free outsider status in some ways give her a leg up on Grimes. And Democrats—ever the optimists—are already prepared to shell out big bucks to help her take down the majority leader. In the first 24 hours of her campaign, McGrath brought in $2.4 million, with more than 69,000 individual donations, according to her campaign. All told, she expects to raise $40 million to $50 million, according to one former Democratic official in the state, who was granted anonymity in order to speak candidly about the race.
“Democrats all across the country, from New York to Los Angeles, are gonna be throwing money at Amy for the chance to, at a minimum, give McConnell a black eye—but maybe defeat him,” the official said.
“I’d give her a 20 percent shot at it.”
* A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that McGrath was the first woman to fly an F-18 fighter jet.