Democratic insurgent Amy McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot, failed to pull off an upset over Republican incumbent Rep. Andy Barr in Kentucky’s 6th District on Tuesday night.
McGrath had ignited the hopes of Democrats around the country who intended to flip her district, which went to Donald Trump by about 16 points in 2016. The Democratic Party didn’t support the first-time candidate in her primary, instead backing Lexington Mayor Jim Gray. But McGrath’s viral campaign ad “Told Me,” which has gotten more than 1.9 million views on YouTube, electrified Kentucky voters and Democrats across the country. The ad foregrounded both her military experience and her strength in the face of sexism: She was the first female Marine to fly an F-18 in combat, a position her own congressman told her she shouldn’t be allowed to hold because “women ought to be protected.”
The fact that polls had McGrath and Barr running neck and neck in the days leading up to the election should be considered an accomplishment in and of itself, considering that in 2016 the three-term congressman won all 19 counties in the district and beat his Democratic opponent by 22 points. McGrath’s early foothold in the district was an encouraging sign for Democrats hoping to take the House. With Kentucky’s polls closing among the first in the country, this race was seen as a potential bellwether for the Democrats’ overall chances. Though McGrath looks like she’ll lose by less than 5 points, her defeat suggests that any blue wave, if it materializes, will be smaller than expected.
McGrath never fully embraced her affiliation with the Democratic Party. She complimented Trump for hiring “my fellow Marines” and distanced herself from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in a campaign ad that showed her blocking shots as a soccer goalie. Meanwhile, Barr bet on the district’s support for both Trump and the political forces that elevated him to the presidency. Barr campaigned with Donald Trump Jr., who called McGrath and her fellow Democrats “crazies,” and ran attack ads with audio of McGrath calling herself pro-choice and a feminist. His win was less of a surprise than McGrath’s moderate success as a magnetic maverick.
The hopes that surrounded McGrath’s campaign were about more than her. They were about the entire electorate—specifically, its capacity to turn against Trumpism when faced with a compelling new face with a personal backstory most Republican candidates would kill to have. Democratic dreams of sweeping wins in Congress were based on the notion that Trump’s win was some kind of nightmarish fluke, and that when faced with his extremism in office and Republican legislators’ unwillingness to contradict him, voters—even in deep-red Kentucky—would think better of their support for the reality-star president. Those dreams now look a little further from the truth.