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Bill Straub: Andy Barr is finding Amy McGrath a formidable opponent for 6th Congressional seat

It hasn’t been a very good last few days for Rep. Andy Barr, which is bad news for a financial industry that controls his every tic in Washington but potentially good news for the residents of Kentucky’s Sixth Congressional District.

Barr, R-Lexington, whose accomplishments during his first five years in office couldn’t fill a thimble, unexpectedly finds himself in a tough re-election campaign against political newcomer Amy McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot who already this year has bested a popular veteran politico, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, for the Democratic nomination.

The contest has attracted national attention and analysts are anticipating a close contest as Democrats make political hay over the current occupant of the White House, Republican Donald J. Trump (egads!) and the insane direction in which he is taking the nation. With little more than 13 weeks to go before the general election, Congress watchers maintain the Democrats stand about an even odds chance of reclaiming control of the House and might even grab the Senate, although that road is substantially murkier.

Amy McGrath and her family

If Democrats are ultimately going to prevail they will have to win seats like Kentucky’s Sixth, even though Trump carried it by about 15 points two years ago. The party of Jefferson and Jackson once owned the district traditionally centered in Lexington, holding the seat for all but two years from 1866 to 1979, which is a good long haul in anybody’s league.

In 1978 Larry Hopkins, of Lexington, broke through and defeated incumbent Rep. John Breckinridge, D-Lexington, to become the first Republican to hold the seat since J. Lincoln Newhall, who served from 1929 to 1931 as a result of the anti-Catholic vote against Democratic presidential nominee Al Smith, of New York, in 1928. Including Hopkins, three of the district’s five most recent congressmen have come from the GOP.

Barr is the latest to assume the job, having defeated incumbent Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles, in 2012 as the district, always fairly conservative politically, gradually switched allegiance.

Ironically it was Chandler’s grandfather, the legendary A.B. “Happy’’ Chandler, a two-term governor and U.S. senator, who, after being fired as commissioner of major league baseball in 1951, dryly noted that the lords of baseball let him go and “opted to keep the position vacant,’’ having appointed corporate yes-man Ford Frick as his replacement. Much the same can be said in reference to his grandson’s successor.

Barr has spent most of his time on Capitol Hill kowtowing to financial interests, toiling to break down the regulations imposed on his Big Bank masters after the horrendous economic meltdown of 2008 that nearly left everyone standing on the street corner, tin cup in hand. His main target has been the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, created in 2011 to, among other things, develop and enforce rules for financial institutions, examine both bank and non-bank financial institutions, monitor the various markets and act on consumer complaints. In other words, keep the industry honest.

That was too much for ol’ Andy. Lucky for him, Humpty-Trumpty has essentially taken on the task of gutting the agency charged with protecting investors.

Otherwise, Barr has done a good job of, well, occupying empty space. He of course virulently opposed Obamacare, absolutely terrified that middle-class folks who previously couldn’t afford health insurance might get the medical care they desperately need.

So ol’ Andy was sliding along until McGrath arrived and showed she means business. Her first television ad was considered an instant classic, establishing that she flew 89 combat missions against al Qaeda and the Taliban despite efforts to hold her back. And she defended Obamacare, noting that Barr said he would “vote enthusiastically to take health care away from a quarter of a million Kentuckians.’’

Andy Barr and his family

“This is my new mission,’’ she said, directly addressing the camera, “to take on a Congress full of career politicians who treat the people of Kentucky like they’re disposable.’’

Powerful stuff. And analysts have taken notice, giving Barr a case of the vapors. The Cook Political Report was the first to rate the race as a toss-up, followed by Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, who switched it from “leans Republican’’ to “toss-up’’ in July, asserting that “Democrats argue McGrath is leading and Republicans concede this will be a hard race.’’

A third joined the crowd last week Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, changed its rating of the race from “leans Republican’’ to “toss-up.’’

“McGrath starts the general election sprint with higher and more favorable name recognition than many of her fellow Democratic challengers across the country,’’ Roll Call said.

So, if nothing else, Barr finds himself in a vulnerable position. So he did what Republicans of a certain stripe always do – he attacked with a 30-second ad using a woman’s voice, of course, to declare that McGrath is “too liberal for Kentucky.’’

The spot displays a black-and-white photo of McGrath with words like “Progressive,’’ and “Feminist’’ and “Supported Hillary Clinton’’ plastered in the foreground.

“My opponent is a radical progressive who will serve as a rubber stamp for the Democrats’ agenda,’’ Barr said on his campaign’s Twitter account. “Simply put, she’s too liberal for Kentucky.’’

If ol’ Andy expected McGrath to be intimidated, he was wrong. McGrath responded, on his Twitter account.

“When you can’t run on your record, this is all you got. @barrforcongress I sat on a runway on Sept 11 with missiles strapped to my F-18 awaiting POTUS orders to shoot down civilian aircraft to defend our homeland. What sacrifice have you ever made for our country over your party?’’ she wrote.

And she responded with her own non-attack ad, promising to work with anyone in Congress who wants to get something done.

Barr ran an even earlier ad, casting aspersions that McGrath couldn’t successfully represent the district because she’s a relative newcomer, which is kind of silly since she grew up in Kentucky — Edgewood in Northern Kentucky, to be precise — so it’s not like she rode in from Timbuktu.

Even the somewhat positive news Barr received this week carries negative connotations. Heritage Action for America, the political arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, announced that it is involving itself in 12 congressional races – including the Barr-McGrath contest in the Sixth.

That means somewhere between $200,000 and $400,000 will be spent in Barr’s behalf outside the official campaign.

While the money, obviously, is nothing to sneeze at, it tells a tale – Heritage wouldn’t be getting involved in the race were it not for the fact Barr is in trouble. Perhaps deep trouble.

It’s still a philosophically Republican district even though old habits die hard – registered Democrats outnumber Republicans – and that would make the contest Barr’s to lose. Given his record, that just may happen.

KyForward’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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