Democrat Amy McGrath is hoping she can convince Kentuckians who voted for President Donald Trump and his pledge to “drain the swamp” that Republican Mitch McConnell is the biggest swamp-dweller in Washington.
The former Marine fighter pilot, who announced her candidacy for U.S. Senate this week, won’t have to worry about money to make that argument. She raked in an impressive $2.5 million in the first day since announcing her bid against the GOP leader in the Senate.
After losing the race for Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District last year, McGrath said she and her husband discussed whether they wanted to submit themselves to another grueling campaign.
“I fully recognize how difficult this race will be and the history behind folks who have gone up against Sen. McConnell,” McGrath told the Courier Journal on Wednesday.
“Part of the problem with politics is we don’t have people who want to get in the fray because of guys like Sen. McConnell, who essentially invented negative campaigning,” she added. “A lot of people don’t want to jump in, so I felt like this is a race that can be won and I’m always wanting to stand up for my country and Kentucky, and that’s why I’m taking him on.”
Read more: Amy McGrath challenges Mitch McConnell as a pro-Trump Democrat
Building a wedge between McConnell and Trump will be a difficult task, however, given the duo’s political partnership. The president made it clear that protecting “our great Kentucky senator” is important for his administration.
“Why would Kentucky ever think of giving up the most powerful position in Congress, the Senate majority leader, for a freshman senator with little power in what will hopefully be the minority party,” Trump said in a tweet. “We need Mitch in the Senate to Keep America Great!!”
McGrath, 44, acknowledged that the president is the most popular politician in the state and that many voters still like him and believe in his promises. She pointed out, however, that the same polling shows McConnell is very unpopular.
“A lot of Kentuckians voted for Donald Trump because he wasn’t part of that political establishment on either side,” McGrath said. “For me, I’m a Democrat. My husband’s a Republican. I was an independent for 12 years; it’s been about my country.”
McGrath sat down with the Courier Journal on Wednesday for an interview about how a Democrat — whose party hasn’t won a Bluegrass State race for U.S. Senate since 1992 — plans to persuade voters in a state Trump won by 30 percentage points.
The Kentucky Democrat also outlined her views on various other topics, including abortion, immigration and whether she would have voted for Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Related: What politicians and pundits on both sides are saying about McGrath
CJ: Are you a pro-Trump Democrat? And how do you separate people who will vote for Trump but may not for Sen. McConnell?
McGrath: This business of pro-Trump, anti-Trump — you’re just putting people in a box. Folks just aren’t like that. … I want to do what’s best for Kentucky, and when President Trump has good ideas, I’m going to be for them. To me it’s not about your political party, it’s not about wearing a red jersey or blue jersey, OK? And that was something I talked about last campaign. If President Trump has good ideas, I’ll be for them. At the same time, if I think he’s wrong I’m going to stand up to him and that’s the difference — one the of major differences — between myself and Sen. McConnell.
CJ: What’s a time the president has been wrong?
McGrath: I’ve spent my adult life in the national security realm. His disparagement of our allies is something deeply personal to me because I lived in tents and fought in combat alongside our allies. I think his wrapping his arms and appeasing dictators like Kim Jong Un, I vehemently disagree with him on. I’m not afraid to stand up to President Trump on the tariffs, which I feel are hurting our Kentucky farmers and hurting our Kentucky businesses.
CJ: You made a point in saying that McConnell has sometimes blocked the president. But his side points out their work on reshaping the U.S. courts. What’s an example, or some examples, of Sen. McConnell blocking the Trump agenda?
McGrath: If you think about why many Kentuckians … I should say, many Kentuckians voted for Donald Trump who know this. If you think about why they did that, Donald Trump was an outsider. He was somebody who promised to drain the swamp, who ran against the D.C. elite, who said the system is rigged and talked about things like infrastructure and bringing down prescription drug prices.
And who blocks him along the way? The man who has been very confident in saying, ‘I’m the one who decides what gets voted on,’ (who) never presents him with a bill to bring down drug prices. … Kentucky has the second-highest per capita spending on prescription drugs in the country, spending about $2,000 for medications. President Trump has said this is one of my priorities and called the system very unfair, and he’s right. He’s talked about reasonable things to bring down those prices, he’s talked about reimporting drugs from across the border in Canada and allowing Medicare to renegotiate drug prices. Who stops him? Sen. McConnell, and he never wants to do anything like that and for years has stopped movement, and why? Well, because he gets the most campaign cash, more than any other member of Congress, from Big Pharma.
CJ: You made the point a lot of Kentuckians supported President Trump because he shook the system up. Do you plan to vote for President Trump in 2020?
McGrath: No, I don’t. I’m very concerned about the things I already told you about. Being someone who comes from the national security realm, someone who had a top security clearance for more than a decade, his actions as commander in chief give me too much pause.
See also: Trump tweets Dems ‘coming after’ McConnell as McGrath enters race
National Democrats and health care
CJ: You got a lot of praise from some of the (Democratic) candidates running for president. Have you made a decision who you’re leaning toward?
McGrath: I haven’t, and I’m like a lot of Kentuckians and a lot of Americans who think it’s kind of too early to do that. But I’m watching just like everybody else and I’m really thankful for all the endorsements from all the spectrum of the Democratic Party. And I think that just shows you people really believe Sen. McConnell has failed Kentucky and failed the country.
CJ: You met with Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, of New York. What’s something you would shake up on the Democratic side and part from the mainstream party on?
McGrath: I, first of all, am not for taking our entire health care system and throwing it into upheaval with something like Medicare for All.
CJ: So, you oppose Medicare for All?
McGrath: I’m not for taking private insurance away from people. I think there are many Kentuckians who like their insurance. We can be reasonable about this. We can fix this. We’re America. We sent somebody to the moon in the 1960s. We can fix our health care system. We just need to have reasonable people in there that want to do reasonable things like bring down drug prices. … I don’t think we need to shake up our entire system that way and throw it out the window like that.
I’m also against things like giving or subsidizing health insurance for illegal immigrants. My husband and I watched the (Democratic presidential) debates, and at one point the host asked to raise your hands if you’re for subsidizing health insurance for illegal immigrants, and two-thirds of the candidates raised their hands. We have too many Kentuckians that can’t afford health insurance to afford those type of things.
CJ: You have said you’re in favor of universal health care. What would the system that you would build look like?
McGrath: I’m in favor of everybody being able to get health care. I think that’s really important and a value we should have and all Americans should have. I like, as I mentioned, working on drug prices and things like the public option.
It was written in the Affordable Care Act before it was taken out at the last minute. It’s a way that private insurers would have to now compete with the public option.
Right now, we know the Affordable Care Act isn’t working great in many parts of Kentucky. Many counties have one insurer. I spent my entire adult life in the military, my insurance is a public insurance, and I think you ought to be able to buy that, too. Republicans ought to love that idea because it’s more competition and people ought to love that idea because it’s more choice, and that’s more reasonable instead of throwing our system into upheaval or trying to take away health care over and over again, which is what Sen. McConnell has done. Remember he ran on this idea the Affordable Care Act was so bad, and that he was going to replace it and the bill was so bad President Trump called it mean.
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CJ: Do you see any restrictions on abortion that you’d be willing to accept? Is there any limit that should be placed on a woman’s right to have an abortion?
McGrath: First, let me take a step back. I’m Catholic, this issue is very important to me. I grew up with this issue. I went to Catholic schools, and my father taught in Catholic school for 40 years. I don’t think I could ever personally, I can’t imagine, I have three children and I can’t imagine getting an abortion.
But like many Kentuckians, I don’t think government should be the deciding factor. I think there are enough restrictions on abortion and they’re reasonable. So right now, you can’t walk into a clinic eight months pregnant and get an abortion, you can’t do it and that’s reasonable. I believe we already have reasonable laws, and I’m very concerned about what’s happening in other states like Alabama and Georgia where they’re trying to criminalize abortion even in cases of rape and incest and the life of the mother. This is not a government decision. It’s a family decision and a very personal decision.
King coal and Eastern Kentucky
CJ: One of the reasons Eastern Kentucky voted for President Trump is that he said he would bring back the coal industry. Do you think it’s a reasonable expectation and that it is feasible?
McGrath: I think with coal, both political parties have used coal as a political football, and the decline of the industry has been happening for decades. A lot of it has to do with automation, fracking and technology. The sad part is that we have had leaders who have not planned for what the market forces are driving, and I’m looking square at Sen. McConnell on this. He’s let signature industries like tobacco and coal decline, he’s used them as a political football and he’s not had a plan for the day after, knowing full well what was happening for decades. I’m a military officer, we plan for everything. We may not want to go to war with North Korea, but you better believe we have a plan for it.
CJ: Do you have a plan for Eastern Kentucky?
McGrath: Well, I will. And I talked about this in my last race. I came out with an entire economic plan for the 6th Congressional District. Much of what I came out with could apply because a lot of it has counties in Eastern Kentucky. That’s why I came out with that 45-page plan because no one is talking about how do we build a new economy. The coal miners, just like the tobacco farmers, when that crop went away who was left out in the cold?
CJ: But wasn’t Sen. McConnell deeply involved in the tobacco buyout? Isn’t he the person who legalized hemp? Shouldn’t he be given some credit for that?
McGrath: The movement on hemp is great. Guess what? It should have been done 15 years ago. He knew what was going on. This is the problem I have. It’s the failure to think ahead and forward and his constant focus on Washington and political games and partisan. He’s not thinking forward for Kentucky; it’s an afterthought.
CJ: What helps Eastern Kentucky?
McGrath: It starts with infrastructure. … No business is going to want to come if they cannot talk to the modern world. We have to do that and this is where I really differ with Sen. McConnell because infrastructure is something President Trump talked about and it’s why Kentuckians voted for him. And Sen. McConnell is like, “dead on arrival.” He’s not even talking about it and he’s not trying. We didn’t become the economic world powerhouse by government doing nothing.
President Eisenhower, a Republican, built the interstate highway system. He had government do it, the nation, and guess what, that’s one of the reasons our economy boomed in the last century, and we need to do this. I read a report last year where we can bring broadband to 98% of the country for like $40 billion, and that’s less than what President Trump is talking about with regards to a wall at the southern border. We’ve got to start having leaders who want to invest in us because the businesses will come if you have the infrastructure.
More coverage: Amy McGrath’s campaign brings in record money in first 24 hours
Brett Kavanaugh confirmation
CJ: One of the centerpieces for Sen. McConnell’s reelection appears to be his work in reshaping the U.S. judiciary. If you had been a senator, would you have voted for Brett Kavanaugh to be on the Supreme Court — why or why not?
McGrath: Well, that’s a good question. I didn’t listen to all of the hearings. I don’t think there was anything, and I’m not a lawyer or a senator on the Judiciary Committee, so I don’t know the criteria. But I was very concerned about Judge Kavanaugh, what I felt like were the far-right stances that he had. However, there was nothing in his record that I think would disqualify him in any way. And the fact is when you have the president and the Senate, this is our system and so I don’t think there was anything that would have disqualified him in my mind.
CJ: Did the Democrats treat him unfairly with the accusations that were against him waiting until the last minute, as some said, to try and delay the hearings?
McGrath: The Supreme Court nominees are a lifetime appointment, and I think there needs to be a lot of scrutiny for lifetime appointments. I don’t fault anyone for bringing up things that could give folks pause about the character of someone getting a lifetime appointment.
CJ: Did you think Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation was credible?
McGrath: Yeah, I think it’s credible. I think this is — I think many Republicans thought it was credible. And —
CJ: That wasn’t disqualifying then?
McGrath: Well, I mean I think again, I think it’s credible but given the amount of time that lapsed in between and from a judicial standpoint, I don’t think it would really disqualify him.
CJ: So you would have voted for him to be on the Supreme Court?
McGrath: You know, I think that with Judge Kavanaugh, yeah, I probably would have voted for him.
ICYMI: Report: Sen. Mitch McConnell’s family owned 14 slaves in Alabama
The U.S.-Mexico border
CJ: What do we need to do about the children in holding cells?
McGrath: It’s a horrible crisis. I believe in strong borders. I’m somebody who served our country and to make sure we know who is coming across our border, who they are and these are all reasonable things. In the short term, we need more resources to the border … and we need to stop family separation. As a mother, to me, that is something that is un-American and against our values, and we don’t need to have Border Patrol agents being babysitters.
In the long term, we need to work to stem this crisis, we work with the Central American countries and Mexico to keep people where they live. There’s a civil war going on and this is why we need to help them during these times, so that people can stay there. The other thing we need to do, which Sen. McConnell has blocked, is comprehensive immigration reform. He’s been in office 34 years and we haven’t had any major piece of legislation to tackle our very broken immigration system in 30 years.
CJ: Is the border wall still a “silly” idea? (McGrath had called it a “stupid” idea previously.)
McGrath: I think at certain times, at certain parts of the border, a physical barrier is fine. We’ve had physical barriers at certain parts for years. I think the idea of a wall to cover the entire border with Mexico is very expensive, I don’t think it’s an effective way, it would take decades to build and then you can just defeat it with a ladder. We can secure our border with better technology. I was an F-18 pilot. We have drones now that can see things that I couldn’t see 20 years ago in that aircraft. It’s amazing, and way cheaper than building a wall.
Reporter Phillip M. Bailey can be reached at 502-582-4475 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: courier-journal.com/philb.