Amy McGrath is a Democrat in a blood-red state who’s never held political office before, and she's up against the man who literally runs the Senate.

Amy McGrath
Credit: MADDIE MCGARVEY/The New York Times/Redux

Hours after a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, on Saturday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s re-election campaign tweeted a photo of a mock cemetery. One of the tombstones reads “R.I.P. Amy McGrath, November 3, 2020.”

McGrath, the former Marine fighter pilot who’s battling McConnell for his Kentucky Senate seat, knew it was going to be hard to topple the most powerful man in American politics — especially as a Democrat in a state that overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump.

McGrath clearly doesn’t shy away from a challenge. She was the first woman Marine to fly a combat mission in an F-18 jet while deployed to Kyrgyzstan after the 9/11 terror attacks. She has dropped bombs on Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Still, she wasn’t prepared to see her name on a grave, in the wake of a mass shooting, while running for Senate.

“I'm fine with the ordinary rough and tumble of politics,” she tweeted Monday in response to the photo, “but this strikes me as beyond the pale.”

McGrath, a 44-year-old mother of three from Georgetown, Kentucky, never aspired to run for office. She told me in an interview on Friday that she knew around the age of 12, after watching a documentary on the History Channel that showed combat jets landing on aircraft carriers, that she wanted to be a fighter pilot. Like any kid with a hobby before the internet, she went to her local library and read everything there was to read about those aircraft carriers. She memorized the names of all of them and learned which countries owned which kind.

But this was 1987, when there was still a federal law on the books excluding women from combat. That’s how McGrath became interested in government.

“I had to learn, well how do you change a law? Who changes laws?” said McGrath. “And I started writing my senators, my members of Congress, and then every single member of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. I wrote basically anyone who would listen, including letters to the editor of the Kentucky Inquirer.”

One of the senators McGrath wrote to was McConnell — Kentucky’s longest serving senator since 1984. He never wrote back.

But the combat exclusion law finally changed in 1992, dubbed by the media at the time as the “Year of the Woman,” when a record 28 women were elected to the House and Senate. (The record has since been shattered many times.) Then-President Bill Clinton signed a bill rescinding it. And five years later, McGrath graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy with a degree in political science and was commissioned as a Marine Corps officer.

McGrath’s experience as one of the first female combat pilots in the Marines prepared her, in a way, to be underestimated as a woman running for Senate. “I was going into a men's locker room — that’s what a fighter squadron is,” she says. “The men were skeptical of me at first. But one of the things I learned from my military career is that at the end of the day, what they really cared about the most is performance. And I proved myself, and the men realized, ‘Ehh okay, she’s fine.’”

Now, after serving 20 years in the military, McGrath finds herself an outsider once again, trying to break into politics under extraordinarily challenging circumstances. She’s a Democratic woman in a blood-red state who’s never held political office before, challenging the man who literally runs the Senate. McConnell gets to decide which legislation and judicial nominees will receive hearings and votes, and he’s notoriously cutthroat and cynical in his pursuit of power. He can block any judge or bill he wants, and thus has been thwarting Democrats’ attempts to legislate at all since Republicans took control of the Senate in 2014.

McGrath didn't grow up in a political party. Her husband, Eric, is a Republican. But they agreed that Republican elected leaders in Kentucky simply weren’t doing anything for the people that elected them. She ran unsuccessfully against Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.) in 2018, but performed well in the deeply conservative district. And now she’s taking on someone even bigger. “My dream was only to serve my country. But after I got married, both Eric and I looked at each other and said, ‘Boy we need better leaders in this country. We need good people to step up and run and take on these individuals that are completely bought off,’” she said.

McGrath said she agrees with Trump’s refrain, “Drain the swamp,” referring to corrupt Washington politicians. And she thinks McConnell is the swamp. “To me, it isn't about being pro-Trump or anti-Trump,” she said. “It's about the fact that we need people who will work with any president, regardless of whether he or she wears a blue jersey or red jersey, and do the things every day Kentuckians want us to do. Get drug prices down, improve infrastructure, tackle the opioid crisis.”

Mitch McConnell has made a name (and a hashtag) for himself by obstinately doing no such thing. He receives the vast majority of his campaign contributions from Wall Street and lobbyists, including pharmaceutical lobbyists — only 9 percent of his donations come from individual donors in Kentucky. McConnell’s agenda, therefore, mainly benefits the rich and powerful, which is why he’s currently the least popular senator among voters in his state.

“Kentucky is a state that has a lot of health problems — the highest cancer rates, an opioid crisis, two times the national death rate, a quarter of the state has diabetes. And we have a senator who tries to throw people off health care,” she said, referring to McConnell’s attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. “He's actually trying to make things worse. He calls himself ‘Cocaine Mitch’ as a joke — how disconnected can you be from a state that has a real drug problem?”

Of course, Democrats and Independents across the nation are thrilled to see a viable challenger to McConnell, who is methodically stacking federal courts with conservatives and notoriously blocked President Obama’s Supreme Court pick, Merrick Garland, for a year until Trump was elected. McGrath raised an impressive $2.5 million the first day she announced her challenge to McConnell, with an average donation of only $36. Her campaign said it was the most money a candidate has ever raised in a single day. 

But Democrats don’t quite know what to do with her, because she’s not a part of the “Trump resistance” like most of the Democrats who swept the House in the 2018 midterm elections. She’s open to supporting some of Trump’s policies and is not running against the president’s agenda — she’s specifically and only running against McConnell, who she says is blocking Trump from doing many of the things he promised Kentuckians he would do when they voted for him in the 2016 election.

“I mean, just in the last forty-eight hours Trump has come up with the reasonable idea of having Medicare be able to negotiate drug prices,” she said. “Who stops that? Mitch McConnell does. He's never allowed drug prices to be negotiated in Medicare, because big pharma funds his campaigns.”

Supporting Trump at all, however, breaks a major taboo in the Democratic Party, and McGrath has already stumbled out of the gate trying to thread the needle between Democratic hero and moderate, bipartisan alternative to McConnell. For instance, she said in an interview that she “probably” would have voted to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s embattled Supreme Court pick who faced an attempted rape allegation. She almost immediately had to apologize and take it back.

“It was a mistake on my part,” she told me. “I was talking about his basic qualifications to be judge — I wasn't looking at the bigger picture, and I corrected myself right away. But the reality is, we wouldn't even be talking about Kavanaugh as such an emotional issue if McConnell hadn't ripped up the Constitution in the first place and blocked Merrick Garland.”

Abortion issues are also going to be a challenge for McGrath. A 2014 poll from the Pew Research Center found that 57 percent of Kentuckians said the procedure should be illegal in all or most cases. McConnell is already running ads against McGrath claiming that she “supports late-term abortion” and sounds “more like a liberal Democrat from New York or California” on the issue. McGrath has said that while she personally opposes abortion as a Catholic and is fine with current laws banning abortion in the third trimester, she believes abortion for the most part is “not a government decision” and that abortion laws shouldn’t be expanded.

On abortion and many other issues, McGrath is to the right of the Democratic Party. She calls herself fiscally conservative and opposes eliminating private insurance in a Medicare-for-all plan. She also opposes subsidizing health insurance for undocumented immigrants. But she wants to expand public funding for health care programs that provide housing and addiction support for opioid addicts, supports expanding the federal paid family leave program, and thinks the U.S. should be leading on climate change issues rather than running away from them.

It’s not going to be easy to woo Kentucky Republicans without turning off the Democrats — and it’s especially hard to do anything in politics as a woman. With more than a year to go until the November 2020 election, the headaches have only begun for McGrath. She said she’s already encountered more sexism on the campaign trail than she did in her entire 20 years in the Marine Corps.

“Last cycle, people would ask me, ‘How are you gonna do this with three small kids?’ And I would say to them, ‘You know, I don't know. When I get elected I’m gonna have to call up my opponent Andy Barr and ask him how he did it, because he's got kids the same age as mine.”

“It’s 2019,” she added. “We can do this.”