President Donald Trump on Saturday is expected to parachute into the middle of a surprisingly close congressional race in Kentucky. He wants to rally conservatives around a GOP incumbent under siege from one of the leading faces of Democratic efforts to regain control of the House of Representatives.
Democrats don’t necessarily need retired Lt. Col. Amy McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot who rose to prominence thanks to a viral campaign ad, to win Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District. It’s possible they could pick up the 24 seats required to flip the House without her.
But on election night, McGrath’s race against Rep. Andy Barr (R) may offer the earliest indication of whether they will, and of how big that majority could be if they do.
Kentucky’s polls close at 6 p.m. EST, meaning McGrath vs. Barr will be one of the first races to end and one of the earliest swing districts to record an outright winner. A victory for McGrath could portend a big night for Democrats. Even a narrow loss in a district like this one may suggest they have enough momentum to regain the majority.
“It’s a real bellwether race, because it’s one of the targets and because it’s going to be one of the first races called,” said Scott Jennings, a Kentucky-based Republican political consultant.
“We’re gonna find out which way the wind is blowing,” he said. “If she wins, that means [Democrats] are knocking down contested jump shots.”
That it is even contested is surprising. The 6th District has been a reliable Republican seat since Barr defeated former Rep. Ben Chandler (D) in 2012, and forecasters considered it safe when the 2018 cycle began. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee didn’t include the district in an initial list of targets, and it recruited a candidate with the ability to self-fund his campaign in part to save money on a race it wasn’t ready to prioritize.
But McGrath upended it all when she beat Lexington Mayor Jim Gray in the Democratic primary, erasing a 40-point deficit early in the race. This happened within a broader context of surging Democratic enthusiasm, especially among women, and sinking approval numbers for a Republican-led Congress, putting more seats into play. For Democrats, the central Kentucky district ― which is largely rural but which includes blue strongholds in Lexington and Frankfort, the state capital ― was now on the map.
With less than a month to go, the race appears to be a dead heat. Internal polls from each campaign show their respective candidate ahead, while a New York Times live poll called it a statistical tie, with Barr ahead by a single point, in late September.