Massive Democratic turnout in rural Kentucky propels progressive Amy McGrath to upset victory

She beat out Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, who started the race as a strong favorite and had the encouragement of the national party.

McGrath in her announcement video. CREDIT: Screenshot via YouTube.
McGrath in her announcement video. CREDIT: Screenshot via YouTube.

Amy McGrath has won the Democratic primary in Kentucky’s sixth Congressional district with 48.5 percent of the vote, beating out Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, who earned 40.9 percent of the vote.

McGrath will face Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY) in the general election this November.

Gray called McGrath, a retired Marine fighter pilot, to concede just before 8:00 p.m. Tuesday.

McGrath’s win in the district is a major upset. Gray was encouraged by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and began the race as a strong favorite.


McGrath caught national attention last summer for her viral campaign announcement video, in which she talked about being told at age 13 by her congressman that she shouldn’t be allowed to be a fighter pilot. She said she also wrote to her senator, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who now serves as Senate majority leader, but that McConnell never wrote back.

In the months since, McGrath has outspent Gray in television ads and built a strong ground game. She also received national attention after announcing last month that she was no longer going to advertise on a Sinclair-owned television station in Kentucky after hosts were required to read a Trumpian script about “fake news.”

In a National Journal article published Monday, she said she believed Gray and the DCCC were underestimating her.

“He’s underestimating me,” McGrath told the Journal. “I just think the DCCC sometimes is disconnected with real America. It’s sad that they recruited him, but we’re going around them.”


An anonymous national Democrat in the story echoed McGrath’s sense of the race, calling it a “David and Goliath” story.

“Conventional wisdom tells you Jim Gray should be winning and winning big,” they told the Journal. “David and Goliath is what this is. It should never have been happening.”

McGrath’s win Tuesday appears to be buoyed by strong Democratic turnout in rural counties in the district. In Robertson county, the Democratic turnout Tuesday was more than double than it was for the primary between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in 2016, jumping from 295 people two years ago to 699 people Tuesday night.

The National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC) was quick to hit McGrath after her win Tuesday night.

“Despite their best efforts, National Democrats were unable to stop radical liberal Amy McGrath from squeaking her way through the primary,” NRCC spokesperson Maddie Anderson said in a statement. “Now they’re left to pick up the pieces and try and find a way to sell a candidate who received from the liberal bastion of California than she did in Kentucky. When even the DCCC thinks you’re too liberal for the district, that’s an insurmountable problem. The NRCC looks forward to Andy Barr’s reelection.”

UPDATE, 10:35 p.m.: An earlier version of this story said the DCCC “backed” Gray, a characterization with which the DCCC quibbled Tuesday night.


“Wanted to flag that we did not back Jim Gray,” DCCC communications director Meredith Kelly said in an email to ThinkProgress. “[We] simply encouraged him to run last year.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said it was McConnell who told McGrath she couldn’t be a fighter pilot. It was actually McGrath’s House representative, not McConnell, who never wrote back.