Marine Corps former fighter pilot Amy McGrath is running as a Democrat in a deeply red, middle Kentucky district, and she is doing something a Democrat in such a district would have been afraid to do quite recently: She’s calling for reasonable gun restrictions.
Back in 2013, four Democrats from red states like hers cast the votes that defeated background checks under President Obama, ending the gun safety agenda he hoped to enact after Sandy Hook, when a mass shooter mowed down 20 first-graders in an elementary school. But today, Democrats are more united on “common-sense” gun regulations.
McGrath provides a good example of how Democrats in pro-gun red states will proceed in the wake of Las Vegas, and the renewed calls for gun safety spurred by the latest mass shooting. She’s pro-gun, she owns guns, she’s a “double expert” in the M-16 rifle and 9 mm pistol but says she’s a “reasonable person” and we need a “conversation” about how to curb gun violence.
“I can’t go in there with guns blazing,” she told a crowd gathered in Washington, D.C., earlier this month to raise money for her candidacy. “I have to do it right.” It was right after the Vegas massacre, and the mostly young, progressive Democrats wanted action. McGrath is cautious. She doesn’t over-promise. She’s a proud Marine, and says she can outshoot anybody. But she has three small children, and they deserve more from their leaders than hollow rhetoric. “Thoughts and prayers are fine for the general public, but for a member of Congress, we need something else,” she says.
Her announcement video in August received over a million views. Filmed on an air strip with an F-18 visible, it should be required viewing for every young girl. McGrath recounts her ambition at age 12 to fly fighter jets and land on aircraft carriers, how she lived her dream and came back home after flying 89 combat missions in Afghanistan and Iraq to take on Republican Rep. Andy Barr, who she characterized as “Mitch McConnell’s handpicked congressman.”
Inside Elections, a congressional rating service, has moved the 6th Congressional District, which includes Lexington and Frankfort and is represented now by three-term Republican Andy Barr, from safe Republican to likely Republican to lean Republican, progress that attests to the strength of McGrath’s personal story and to the GOP’s vulnerability. “No incumbent Republican is safe in a cycle that could turn dramatically against the Republican Party,” says Nathan Gonzales with Inside Elections. “If you’re an incumbent in Washington, you’re at the scene of the crime.”
A 20-year veteran of the Marine Corps and a graduate of the Naval Academy, McGrath is the first woman Marine to fly an F-18 fighter jet on a combat mission, fulfilling a goal she set for herself after watching the History Channel with her father and hearing a narrator say anybody can be a pilot, but a naval aviator, that’s something else, that’s a cut above. Told there was a law against women flying combat jets, on the advice of her mother, one of the first women to graduate from the University of Kentucky medical school in the ’60s, McGrath wrote her congressman and her two senators to ask them to change the law.
The congressman wrote back a “very condescending letter that women are precious commodities and must be protected... do something else and good luck,” she recounted. The two senators did not respond. One of them was McConnell. She also wrote every member of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. Democrat Patricia Schroeder of Colorado, the first woman to sit on the previously all-male House committee, wrote back to say, “The object of a war is to win. We should, therefore, field the best-qualified military possible... I think that it is time for military service to be based on qualifications, not gender.”
“This had a direct impact on my life, I’ve never forgotten that,” McGrath said. She noticed that the encouragement came from one side of the aisle. “If it weren’t for radical Democrats in Congress, I wouldn’t have had a job for the last 20 years.” In 1993, when she was 17 years old, she became a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy and able to compete to fly fighter jets. “I worked my butt off and I was first in all these things not because I was really great,” she says. “I was in the right place at the right time. My sister who was four years older couldn’t do it. I’ve been given a gift, and I want to give back.”
The crowd assembled in Georgetown enjoyed bourbon chicken soup and ham biscuits, nods to Kentucky’s cuisine. McGrath told of returning from her first deployment after the 9/11 attacks and her Iranian refugee neighbors in San Diego welcomed her holding an American flag. “I fought for my fellow Kentuckians, but I also fought for them,” she said, declaring, “I’m tired of all the bullshit. That’s one reason I’m running.”
Her last assignment with the Marine Corps was teaching a course at the Naval Academy about American government and the Constitution, “about what they’re going to be fighting for,” she says.
The dispiriting nature of the 2016 election, with its revelations about fake news, left her distraught. “I felt someone had just sucker punched me,” she said. “I knew then I had to do something.” She was reaching her 20 years and eligibility for retirement, and with three small children, now ages 5, 3, and 1, “it became clear I had to go home.”
Home is Georgetown, Kentucky, in the 6th Congressional District, where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans although they haven’t voted their party in federal elections for some time. “In order to win, Democrats will need a nominee that is not automatically or immediately connected to the national party,” says Gonzales. “Voters will give political outsiders a second look.”
She tells the people at the Washington fundraiser that she wasn’t always a Democrat, that she identified as an Independent when she was in the military. The GOP’s effort to repeal and replace Obamacare sent her over the edge. “I just snapped,” she said. “Kentucky is a success story for the ACA (Affordable Care Act) even though McConnell and Rand Paul and all these politicians say it isn’t. It’s BS—it’s not failing. Over 20 percent uninsured is down to 5 percent. It’s a huge success story.”
The fight over the ACA cemented her decision to run. She decided in June of this year to return to Kentucky. She moved with her family in July—her husband, Erik Henderson, is a U.S. Navy lieutenant commander—and in August she announced her candidacy.
One young girl at the fundraiser with her parents asked who are her role models. “My mother,” she said. “Besides your mother,” the girl said, not letting her get off with the easy answer. “Sports figures,” she replied. “Ted Williams, he was a Marine fighter pilot and a baseball player. And astronauts, John Glenn and Alan Shepard because they went into space. I thought it was really cool.”
McGrath’s candidacy is really cool. And like the role models she cites, her success in the political arena has the potential to transcend partisan labels and assure voters that service to the country can take many forms.