A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Bill Straub: Kentucky commands nation’s attention as Andy Barr-Amy McGrath race goes down to the wire

WASHINGTON – Kentucky doesn’t often command the nation’s attention unless it happens to be the first Saturday in May or the Wildcats are making a run in March. But during this vital political season, a lot of eyes are turning toward the congressional race in the commonwealth’s Sixth District, which could determine which party controls the House.

The contest between incumbent Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, and Democratic challenger Amy McGrath, of Georgetown, is probably attracting more attention than any other House race in the nation and the reasons are obvious. It’s a test of President “Tiny’’ Trump’s popularity in the Central Kentucky district where the GOP has made significant strides in the 21st Century. And it could provide some insight regarding whether the #MeToo movement has the sort of staying power that its advocates proclaim.

Barr assumed office after defeating incumbent Democrat Ben Chandler, of Versailles, in 2012, becoming only the fourth Republican to hold the Lexington-centered seat since the Commonwealth achieved statehood, establishing that the region had taken a turn to the right in response, at least partially, to the presidency of Democrat Barack Obama.

Barr hasn’t encountered problems holding on to the slot to this point, even though his record on Capitol Hill isn’t one that’s going to turn anybody’s head. His years of go-along-to-get-alongism resulted in only weak opposition from Democrats in his two subsequent re-election campaigns, resulting in victories that attracted no less than 60 percent of the vote.

On top of that, in 2016, Trump, who has about as much in common with Bluegrass voters as a lightning bug has to a lightning bolt, won the district with 55 percent of the vote, although he lost the city of Lexington to Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Now a cursory view would lead to the conclusion that 2018 would result in easy pickins’ for ol’ Andy with the power of incumbency, an overflowing campaign treasury — provided to some extent by his good pals in the banking industry — and an electorate promenading down the GOP garden path.

Amy McGrath

That picture should have been even rosier when McGrath, a first-time candidate, defeated two better-known contenders in the Democratic primary, including Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, to win the nomination.

But as Bobby Burns famously said, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.” Which translated means Barr is hanging on by his fingertips. There is little polling in the race – the Courier Journal and the Lexington Herald-Leader apparently abdicating, at least to this point, that essential task in this new world of journalism. But one recent survey conducted by a Democrat-leaning firm, Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group, conducted from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2, showed McGrath leading 51 percent to 44 percent.

Partisan polls aren’t always trustworthy. But FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver’s website that is the Rolls Royce when it comes to polling analysis, gives Garin-Hart-Young a B+, which means you can pretty much take it to the bank. One note of caution, however – the poll was taken before Trump’s inexplicable surge in popularity nationwide. Which could carry some impact.

But it’s also true, as the polling firm explained, that “’undecided’ voters RARELY shift to the incumbent,” meaning Barr could be running out of options with the showdown less than three weeks out.

Countering Garin-Hart-Young is a poll from Public Opinion Strategies, working for Barr, conducted Oct. 6-8, which gives the Republican, according to the firm, “a narrow lead’’ at 48 percent to 46 percent.

On the positive side, Public Opinion Strategies notes, “for the first time this cycle, GOP enthusiasm for November’s Election outpaces DEM interest in this district.’’

Three ratings outfits, the Cook Political Report, the University of Virginia Center for Politics (Larry Sabato’s gang) and Realclearpolitics.com all have it listed as a toss-up, making it a potential Democratic gain.

It’s fair to say the seat is vital for Democratic ambitions to retake the majority, and Republicans, who desperately and understandably want to maintain control. Trump, spreading his usual variety of lies as if he’s tossing grass seed on the White House lawn, held a rally for Barr in Richmond while former Vice President Joe Biden made it in for McGrath.

Democrats need to pick up 25 seats to retake the majority. That could prove to be a tall order should Barr prevail in KY 6.

In a nutshell, McGrath has run an excellent campaign, especially for a candidate who has never run before. Her television ads are among the best produced this campaign season, if not the best, stressing her experience as a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and a fighter pilot.

Barr has responded in the only way available to him since his legislative record, save for giving financial institutions everything including the shirt off his back, is so sparse. He has employed the term “too liberal’’ as if it were a mantra and taken the opportunity to misstate several of McGrath’s proposals, including the claim that she supported socialized medicine.

One group not aligned with the Barr campaign organization has even had the audacity to attack McGrath’s military record, a slur that may ultimately backfire.

Andy Barr

The argument certainly isn’t settled. Public Opinion Strategies claims that Trump’s approval rating “is positive in the district, as 52 percent of voters approve of the job Trump is doing against just 46 percent of voters who disapprove.

If accurate, that would mean the Trumpster is significantly more popular in the 6th District that he is nationwide and a feeling of loyalty to a man who has built a cult of personality in America unseen since the days of George Corley Wallace could affect GOP turnout and push Barr across the finish line.

But ultimately this is a real test for the #MeToo movement. Democrats can usually depend on ethnic minorities for overwhelming support but that won’t amount to much in the Sixth where African-Americans constitute less than 9 percent of the population and Latinos make less than 5 percent.

White males, fearful of losing their kingpin status, are firmly in Trump’s shirt pocket. That basically means white women will ultimately determine the Barr-McGrath outcome.

In the general population, women outstrip men 51.5 percent to 48.5 percent, which would seem to work to McGrath’s advantage but it certainly didn’t help Hillary Clinton very much. Figures for the 6th District couldn’t be located, but white females nationwide in 2016 gave 53 percent of their votes to Trump despite his obvious misogyny and his sickening claims of sexual abuse.

So there’s no reason to believe that white women in the 6th District didn’t provide Trump with a majority of the vote two years ago. But that was then. Supporters of the #MeToo movement, a loosely-based coalition of women who claim to have been victims of sexual abuse and/or sexual harassment, are insisting that their voices be heard and are vowing to go to the polls in record numbers Nov. 6 to oust those seen as unsympathetic.

In an interview with GQ magazine, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, a potential presidential candidate in 2020, said, “There’s nothing like electing someone who’s seen by so many to be misogynist — someone who doesn’t value women — to get [women] to understand that their voices really do matter.’’

#MeToo advocates were radicalized to some extent by the confirmation of Justice Bret Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court despite claims that he sexually attacked a woman during his high school days, a claim he denied.

In order for McGrath to win, a substantial number of white women, affected by #MeToo, who voted for Barr and Trump in 2016 are going to have to do an about-face and vote for the female fighter pilot this go-round. And similarly situated women, who simply sat out the election two years ago because they couldn’t stomach either contender, will have to cast ballots as well.

So the Barr-McGrath contest won’t only prove vital to determine which party controls the House. It will also determine whether the #MeToo movement has legs.

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