From the start, Amy McGrath has campaigned as a different kind of Democrat running a different kind of race against incumbent Republican Congressman Andy Barr.
That’s why she invited former Vice President Joe Biden to come here, to rural Bath County, to campaign for her rather than in the more populous Fayette County, where Democrats usually fare well in the Sixth District.
But McGrath’s campaign manager, Mark Nickolas, who managed Ben Chandler’s successful Sixth District campaign in 2004, says McGrath has planned all along to run aggressively in all 19 counties in the district.
“If the 2016 elections taught us anything, it’s that we cannot rely just on the traditional Democratic vote in the cities,” Nickolas said Friday, standing outside the Bath County High School auditorium where Biden and McGrath would later speak.
The district is as close to a purple district as exists in mostly red, conservative Kentucky. It stretches from more urban, more Democratic counties like Franklin and Fayette in the west to more rural counties like Bath, where a majority of voters are registered Democratic but often vote Republican.
But McGrath campaigned in all 19 counties in the Democratic primary when she upset the favored candidate, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray — and it paid off as she won every county in the district except for Fayette.
“Beginning in the primary, we built a very robust operation in the other 18 counties,” Nickolas said. “Lexington is critically important. Between Lexington and Frankfort, it gets you to the 23-mile marker of the marathon but if you’ve not communicated with rural voters, you’re not going to win.”
Barr won the district by 22 points in 2016 while President Donald Trump — who will visit Richmond Saturday night to campaign with Barr — won it by 15.
When Barr first won the seat from Chandler in 2012, he did so by casting Chandler as out of touch with the rural areas and insufficiently supportive of the coal industry.
McGrath has set out from the start to sell herself to rural voters as someone who will listen and who will represent them as well as the residents of Lexington and Frankfort. That’s why the campaign opened field offices in all 19 counties, Nickolas said.
And bringing Biden to Bath County for an old-fashioned fish fry is part of that strategy.
“I think bringing Joe Biden into a rural county is a reinforcement of that statement that she’s going to be a member of Congress that truly represents all 19 counties,” Nickolas said.
Of course, Biden served as Vice President to Barack Obama who lost Kentucky in each of his two successful runs for the White House.
Trump’s visit to Eastern Kentucky University Saturday is another indication of the importance of counties outside the urban Fayette County area. It is in Madison County, a bellwether county which has consistently voted for the winner in the Sixth District.
Barbara Hignite, a nurse practitioner from Richmond, traveled here Friday to hear Biden and McGrath. A Democrat, she acknowledged how well Trump ran in Madison County in 2016 but believes McGrath is a different sort of Democrat — the kind who can beat Barr.