Who is Amy McGrath, the Kentucky Democrat challenging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell?

CNN/Stylemagazine.com Newswire | 7/9/2019, 12:20 p.m.
Amy McGrath, the former fighter pilot who narrowly lost a bid for Congress last year, on Tuesday launched her campaign ...
Amy McGrath, the former fighter pilot who narrowly lost a bid for Congress last year, on Tuesday launched her campaign to unseat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell./Source: Kyung Lah/CNN

By Eric Bradner, CNN

(CNN) -- Amy McGrath, the former fighter pilot who narrowly lost a bid for Congress last year, on Tuesday launched her campaign to unseat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The 44-year-old Kentucky Democrat entered politics as a first-time candidate two years ago after a 20-year career as a Marine. McGrath was the first woman to fly an F-18 in combat, and flew more than 85 combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That military career helped vault her into the national eye -- and turn her into a darling of the progressive anti-Trump resistance in last year's midterm elections. She launched her 2018 campaign for Kentucky's 6th District with a powerful video highlighting the roadblocks politicians placed in front of her efforts to become a combat pilot.

On Tuesday, McGrath similarly highlighted her military background in a new video launching her Senate bid. In that video, McGrath recalled writing a letter to McConnell when she was 13 years old, asking the senator to change the law that, at that time, barred women from becoming combat pilots.

"He never wrote back," McGrath recalled. "I've often wondered, how many other people did Mitch McConnell never take the time to write back, or even think about?"

In 2018, McGrath notched a major victory in a closely watched Democratic primary, when she defeated Lexington Mayor Jim Gray -- a well-known figure who was one of the first openly gay Kentuckians elected to public office.

In the general election, she proved to be a strong fundraiser, bringing in $8.5 million and outpacing the GOP incumbent, Rep. Andy Barr.

But Barr portrayed McGrath as too far left for the deep-red, Lexington-based 6th District -- and did so using McGrath's own words.

His campaign aired television ads using a recording of McGrath, at a Massachusetts fundraiser, saying, "I am further left, I am more progressive, than anyone in the state of Kentucky."

Now, McGrath faces an even more daunting challenge: trying to unseat McConnell in a state President Donald Trump won by 30 points in 2016.

Democrats last year learned how hard it is to buck the trend of Senate races mirroring their states' presidential results. Three Democratic incumbents -- North Dakota's Heidi Heitkamp, Indiana's Joe Donnelly and Missouri's Claire McCaskill -- all lost in states Trump had won by double digits.

McConnell, meanwhile, has proven tough to beat. In 2014, he bested Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes, a highly touted and well-funded opponent, by more than 15 percentage points.

McConnell's team is using tactics similar to Barr, greeting McGrath on Tuesday with a video that showed her taking progressive positions on issues like abortion, calling Trump's border wall "stupid" and saying that -- if the nation were designing a health care system from scratch -- "single payer is the way to go."

McGrath is seeking to appeal to conservatives by exploiting differences between McConnell and Trump.

"Everything that's wrong in Washington had to start someplace. How did it come to this, that even within our own families, we can't talk to each other about the leaders of our country anymore without anger and blame?" McGrath asks in her launch video.

"Well, it started with this man," she says, "who was elected a lifetime ago, and who has, bit by bit, year by year, turned Washington into something we all despise -- where dysfunction and chaos are political weapons."