Lt. Col. Amy McGrath

Lt. Col. Amy McGrath | Screenshot via campaign video

The former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath, who announced on Tuesday morning her campaign against Mitch McConnell, is a very long shot to defeat him. But that doesn’t mean she can’t win. 

There is no guarantee that McGrath is the Democratic nominee to take on McConnell even though she is the most high-profile Democrat so far to announce her candidacy for U.S. Senate.

Keep in mind that 2019 gubernatorial candidate and House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins and sports radio host Matt Jones have been mentioned as potential candidates as well. And if either of them ran, they could be formidable in a Democratic primary against McGrath. (The primary for the Senate race is May 19, 2020, and there are two lesser-known Democrats running as well.) 

But let’s say McGrath wins the primary. She is likely the favorite, even if Adkins or Jones, or both, get in. Entering the race early means that McGrath can get a head start raising money and building support for her candidacy. 

Mitch McConnell

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

Does she have any chance against McConnell? By far her biggest advantage is McConnell’s unpopularity. According to polling from Morning Consult, about 36% of Kentuckians approve of the senator, while 50% disapprove of him. (The rest don’t have a clear stance.) And liberals outside of Kentucky really, really do not like McConnell. Those people can’t vote, but they can give money, potentially lots of it. 

Secondly, McGrath, who has never held elective office before, showed considerable political skills last year in defeating longtime Lexington Mayor Jim Gray in the Democratic primary for the congressional seat in the Lexington area.

She didn’t win the general election against Andy Barr, but that’s probably because that district is quite conservative (Mitt Romney won it by about 14 percentage points in 2012, Donald Trump by 15 in 2016). McGrath only lost by three points in the general election, a very strong performance. 

So the case for McGrath is that she is a talented political figure, will have a well-funded campaign and that Kentuckians are perhaps tired of McConnell. 

But McGrath is a long shot largely because of the same broader political dynamics that hurt her last year. The state of Kentucky is considerably more conservative than the Lexington-area district that she just lost in (Romney won in Kentucky by 23 percentage points in 2012, Trump by 30 points in 2016).

To win this race, McGrath will likely need a fairly large bloc of people who are voting for Trump for president to then cross party lines and vote for her in the Senate race. 

That kind of ticket-splitting doesn’t usually happen.

In 2016, as FiveThirtyEight explained, “every state that elected a Republican candidate for Senate voted for Trump, and every state that elected a Democratic Senate candidate voted for Clinton.” (Gubernatorial elections don’t have this same kind of partisanship pattern, which is why Andy Beshear is not a long shot in his gubernatorial campaign against Matt Bevin.) 

Also, McConnell’s bad poll numbers may not tell us much. He was also very unpopular in the run-up to the 2014 elections. But McConnell painted his opponent, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Grimes, as too liberal and out of touch with the conservatism of the state. McConnell likely will employ the same strategy for this race. He may also have the president campaign for him, which would be a boon in this state. 

Politics is dynamic. So it’s not that McGrath absolutely can’t win. But she probably needs at least one of three things to happen:

  1. Trump to become much more unpopular than he is now so that he would be weaker in Kentucky, too.
  2. Conservative-leaning voters to put aside their general partisan preferences because they are tired of McConnell, even as they remain aligned with Trump.
  3. McGrath’s particular appeal as a former Marine to get conservative-leaning voters to support her, even as they remain aligned with Trump. 

None of that is impossible. But none of it is particularly likely, either. 

This post has been updated to remove an incorrect reference to the party of the governors of Maryland and Massachusetts.