LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Former fighter pilot Amy McGrath vanquished Lexington's mayor in Tuesday's Democratic primary for a congressional seat in Kentucky, setting up a tougher mission against a Republican incumbent in a district seen as a pickup opportunity for her party.
McGrath, a political newcomer who spent 20 years in the Marine Corps, defeated Lexington's mayor, Jim Gray, along with state Sen. Reggie Thomas and three other opponents.
"Six months ago, political pundits and establishment insiders didn't think we could pull this off," McGrath said in her victory speech. "Did you ever show them!"
McGrath joined a surge of women and military veteran candidates running as part of a Democratic strategy for challenging Republican control of Congress this year. Her win sets up a high-profile fall campaign against U.S. Rep. Andy Barr in the 6th District, which Republican Donald Trump carried in 2016. Democrats see it as their best chance to gain a seat in the Bluegrass State.
The district stretches from the Appalachian foothills to bluegrass country in and around Lexington, and has swung between Democratic and Republican representation for decades. Barr, a supporter of Trump's agenda now seeking a fourth term, easily defeated challenger Chuck Eddy in Tuesday's Republican primary.
McGrath and Barr quickly set their sights Tuesday night on what looms as a bruising fall campaign.
Since his election to Congress in 2012, Barr has joined the GOP push to dismantle much of Obama's legacy, including the health-care law known as Obamacare. McGrath supports the Affordable Care Act, but says she would try to improve it by creating a public health insurance option. She also supports expanded access to Medicare to people 55 and older.
McGrath portrayed Barr as being part of a "broken Congress."
"Like so many in Congress today, he puts his political party and his big-dollar special interest donors first," she said. "That is the problem. I think Kentucky and our country should come first."
Barr linked McGrath to former President Barack Obama's agenda and touted the tax cuts and regulatory rollbacks pushed by the GOP Congress.
"The country is moving in a positive, more prosperous, more safe ... direction," the congressman said in a phone interview Tuesday night. "What we don't want to do is go backwards."
Meanwhile, in Kentucky's most urban congressional district, the state's former top-ranking health official, Vickie Yates Brown Glisson, won a three-way Republican primary. Glisson led the state's effort to impose the nation's first work requirements on Medicaid recipients. Now she'll challenge U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, the only Democrat in Kentucky's congressional delegation, in the Louisville-area 3rd District.
Elsewhere across Kentucky, Democrats were nominating candidates who will be prohibitive underdogs against four Republican congressmen in November.
U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, dean of the state's congressional delegation, cruised past a challenger in Tuesday's Republican primary; the other GOP incumbents — U.S. Reps. James Comer, Brett Guthrie and Thomas Massie — were unopposed.
The state's biggest political splash this spring was in the 6th District, where McGrath had to overcome Gray's early advantages in name recognition and political connections as both of them reached out to voters with a series of TV ads.
McGrath played up her military career, which ended in 2017 when she retired from the Marines as a lieutenant colonel who had flown 89 combat missions, including bombings targeting al-Qaida and the Taliban. Gray, Lexington's first openly gay mayor, touted his successes in business and in running the district's largest city.
The tame primary campaign turned negative when Gray ran a late ad noting McGrath was a relative newcomer to the district. McGrath, who grew up in northern Kentucky, took up residency in the 6th District last year after ending her military career.
Gray's bid to make residency an issue didn't sway voters like Dixie Klier of Versailles, who backed McGrath.
"The fact that she came back to her state to support it when we really need a national change, I admire her for that," Klier said. "She didn't have to do that. That was a choice."
Two years ago, Gray narrowly won the 6th District in his losing campaign against Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul. McGrath had criticized Gray as being recruited by establishment Democrats.
Teresa Newman of Versailles struggled to decide, but chose McGrath in the end.
"It was very hard because I like Jim Gray, too," she said. "It was a last-minute decision. ... I think we need young energy in there. I know she cares about the health care issue. She wants Kentuckians to have heath care."