FRANKFORT — There are obvious signs that incumbent Republican Congressman Andy Barr has a fight on his hands if he wants to continue to represent Kentucky’s Sixth District.
On Monday, Barr unleashed his third attack in as many weeks on his Democratic opponent Amy McGrath, an unusual move by an incumbent this early in a race.
Then on Tuesday, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported that President Donald Trump will visit Kentucky to campaign for Barr, although a spokeswoman for Barr couldn’t confirm such a visit.
“Congressman Barr would welcome President Trump to the Sixth District,” said Jodi Whitaker. But she could not confirm that such a visit is actually scheduled. Trump easily carried the Sixth District and Kentucky in the 2016 election and remains popular here.
“Absolutely, Trump coming to campaign for Barr would help his campaign,” said Joe Gershtenson, professor in the Government Department at Eastern Kentucky University.
Les Fugate, a Louisville public relations professional who previously worked for Trey Grayson who served as Kentucky Secretary of State from 2004 to 2011, agrees.
“Congressman Barr is probably elated,” Fugate said. “For those voters who like the president but who are not engaged in the race that will get them out to vote.”
But a Trump campaign visit is another indication Republicans are concerned about the McGrath challenge.
Fugate and Gershtenson both said it’s unusual for an incumbent congressman to launch negative ads so early in a campaign, a likely indication his polling shows he’s behind or at least in a close race.
McGrath, a retired U.S. Marine Lt. Colonel and fighter pilot, may have been somewhat insulated from typical Republican attacks on Democrats because of her military career and impressive biography. But in the latest Barr ad, McGrath is heard saying at an out-of-state fundraising event that “I am more progressive than anyone in the state of Kentucky.”
McGrath has portrayed herself as less interested in party than in the welfare of the country and noting that she upset the favored candidate of the national Democratic establishment, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, in the primary.
McGrath has thus far responded to Barr’s attacks with an ad in which she talks about her time in combat, saying she never asked the political affiliation of fellow marines and directly asking Barr: “Is that all you’ve got?” while standing next to a fighter plane.
Fugate said the fact that McGrath says in her own words and voice that she’s a progressive in the latest Barr ad might be more telling with conservative and rural voters. That’s the point of the ad, said Barr’s spokeswoman, Whitaker.
“This ad is about Amy McGrath in her own words,” Whitaker said. “She was caught on tape saying she’s ‘further left — more progressive than anybody in the state of Kentucky.’ She’s trying to fool the people of Kentucky by talking conservative in the rural communities, sounding liberal in Lexington, and shouting she’s a leftist progressive in Massachusetts.”
McGrath’s campaign manager, Mark Nickolas, said voters are tired of such negative attacks and Barr’s attacks are a sure indication his re-election is in jeopardy.
“Voters deserve candidates with the courage of speak directly on the issues,” he said. “In the case of Andy Barr — like a lot of incumbents — voters have decided they’re not interested in re-electing him so his only option is to try to destroy his opponent.
“You do not do what (Barr is) doing if you think you can win the race on your merits,” Nickolas said, adding he expects McGrath to continue “to run the kind of campaign Amy wants to run.”
She’s run a campaign as an outsider, as someone willing to work across the aisle to overcome partisan rancor, “to put country ahead of party.” Gershtenson said that’s part of her appeal and success.
But while McGrath hasn’t attacked Barr yet, an outside group, VoteVets, began an ad Tuesday attacking Barr for ties to special interests and voting for a measure to roll back provisions of the Affordable Care Act, representing “insurance and financial interests” and supporting legislation the AARP calculates would increase costs for older Americans.
Whitaker said Barr “voted to repeal dozens of Obamacare taxes, including the individual mandate tax and voted for the largest tax cut in a generation.” She said McGrath wants to repeal those cuts which would lead to higher taxes on middle class families.
Gershtenson wonders if McGrath will eventually decide she has to respond directly.
“To me, the most interesting thing in the immediate future is will she continue to maintain this attitude of ‘is that all you got?’ instead of going back at him,” Gershtenson said.
Nickolas implied McGrath would prefer to keep to the high road.
“We’ll respond,” he said. “But I think you will see a stark difference in how the two campaigns communicate with voters.”
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @cnhifrankfort.