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Service to country: In Kentucky, the fight to bring more veterans to Congress

Why We Wrote This

Rep. Seth Moulton (D) of Massachusetts thinks Congress needs more courage. That’s why he’s out stumping for candidates who, like him, have served in the military.

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Amy McGrath, a former Marine Corps fighter pilot running for Congress, rallies supporters at a chili cook-off in Paris, Ky., Oct. 30. Ms. McGrath, a political rookie, is neck and neck with GOP incumbent Andy Barr in a closely watched race. Rep. Seth Moulton (D) of Massachusetts, a fellow Marine who is supporting a network of veterans running for office, stands in the background after introducing McGrath.

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Can a Massachusetts Democrat help woo voters deep in Trump country? Former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath thinks so. With help from Rep. Seth Moulton, a fellow Marine who served four tours of duty in Iraq, she has gone from a political nobody to one of the most closely watched challengers in the country. She’s one of dozens of candidates, many of them veterans, whom Mr. Moulton has endorsed in a bid to bring a new generation of leaders to Congress – leaders who, he argues, will put country above party. Over fried cod tail at a nearby diner, he explains his mission is not only to take back the House for Democrats, but to transform an institution that has become mired in political point-scoring. And he would like to see Congress reclaim its constitutional responsibility to hold the president accountable. In Kentucky, Ms. McGrath’s liberal positions on health care are a hard sell among conservatives, but she is energizing Democrats. “If the Marines can trust her,” says voter Judith Cannon, “I think I can, too.”

You wouldn’t think that a Massachusetts Democrat would be of much help wooing voters deep in Trump Country.

But that’s who retired Marine Corps fighter pilot Amy McGrath enlisted in her bid to win Kentucky’s 6th  congressional district, one of the most closely watched races in the country.

Just days before the election, as Democrats bask in the aroma of chili and possible victory at the Bourbon County fairgrounds, Rep. Seth Moulton (D) of Massachusetts – a fellow Marine – steps up to the hay bales and pumpkins to make his pitch for Lieutenant Colonel (retired) McGrath.

“I was just a dumb grunt as an infantry guy, slogging through the mud,” says Congressman Moulton, who served four tours in Iraq. “But I’ll never forget what it meant, what it felt like, when I heard jets coming. They had our back.”

“And that’s the biggest thing about Amy ... she’s going to have your back in Congress,” he continues. “And it doesn’t matter what the Republicans say, it doesn’t matter what our leaders in the Democratic Party say – she’s going to fight for what’s right, because that’s just who she is.”

Moulton is spearheading an ambitious bid to bring a new generation of leaders to Congress – leaders who, he argues, will put country above party on Capitol Hill just as they have in the military. Over fried cod tail at a diner, he explains his mission is not only to take back the House, but to transform an institution that has become mired in political point-scoring – to the detriment of the people they serve.

“My observation is that Congress is not lacking in intelligence – most of my colleagues are pretty smart,” says Moulton. “What Congress is lacking is courage.”

That’s why he was one of the first people to endorse McGrath, who was such a dark horse that her own pollster thought she’d do well to lose the primary by only 20 percentage points to the Democratic Party’s preferred candidate.

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Scott Browder (r.) canvasses a neighborhood in Richmond, Ky., for Amy McGrath, a former Marine Corps fighter pilot running for Congress. The rookie Democrat produced some of her campaign signs in Marine red rather than in liberal blue. The Republican owner of this sign, a health care worker, strongly supports Ms. McGrath.

With Moulton’s help, she beat him by 8 points.

With Election Day fast approaching, a New York Times/Siena College poll shows her tied with her opponent, Rep. Andy Barr (R).

“My talk of country over party kind of scares both sides, it scares both establishments,” says McGrath. “Seth immediately was like – ‘No, this is the kind of person we need.’ ”

Time for a change?

It wasn’t the first time Moulton challenged the Democratic establishment.

In the wake of the party’s stunning defeat in 2016, he has become one of the most vocal in calling for House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and other senior leaders to step aside.

“Imagine being a CEO – you have the worst returns since 1920, but you say, ‘We’re going to keep the current leadership,’ ” he says. “It’s asinine.”

That has left the party in a position of weakness, he argues, unable to intervene as the GOP-controlled Congress has abdicated its constitutional responsibility to hold the president accountable.

“We all talk about the ways in which [President] Trump is tearing apart our democracy – they’re very real,” he says. “But the Founding Fathers knew that that could happen.... [T]hey designed our system of government so that Congress could be a check on the executive. And the Republican Congress has completely failed in that job.”

Moulton is seen by some as a promising new kind of leader who could be a presidential contender as soon as 2020. But his unabashed criticism of top Democratic figures has provoked grumblings on Capitol Hill, where some members of his own party have described him privately as an opportunistic neophyte.

But in his first term, Moulton was ranked No. 2 for effectiveness among all Democratic freshman legislators by the Center for Effective Lawmaking.

“His success at advancing his legislative agenda in the 114th Congress was very consistent with this rhetoric of trying to cross party lines and forge bridges,” says Alan E. Wiseman of Vanderbilt University, who is co-director of the center.

Moulton has also been ranked among the top 10 percent of representatives for bipartisanship. Now he’s cultivating a group of like-minded veterans or service-minded Americans to join him on Capitol Hill.

In total, Moulton has raised $8 million to support 67 candidates in 28 states. He has also helped the congressional candidates to support each other through a Slack messaging channel, a trip to the Mexican border, and group debate prep sessions. Even as he’s waging his own reelection campaign and navigating the first few weeks as a new dad, he has been crisscrossing the country stumping for his mentees.

They include Conor Lamb, the Pennsylvanian who staged a stunning upset earlier this year; Colin Allred, a former NFL player who – according to a new poll – just pulled ahead of 15-year GOP incumbent Pete Sessions in northern Texas; and McGrath, who has mounted such a strong challenge to Representative Barr that Trump personally came out to rally Republican voters last month.

Often dressed in fleece jackets with minimal makeup and jewelry, she combines a Marine toughness with a mama-bear warmth, as comfortable talking about her kid running around the neighborhood naked as she is underscoring the historic importance of the 2018 vote.  

“This election is about the soul of our country,” the mother of three tells the crowd at the chili dinner. It is about who we are, it is about who we want to be, what kind of country we want our kids to grow up in.

“Do we want leaders that always demonize the other side? .... Or do we want leaders with courage?”

She describes herself as leading by example, running a substantive campaign focused on issues rather than attack ads.

But Barr, who was first elected in 2012, challenges that narrative.

“Nobody should be under the false impression that my opponent has somehow run this pristine, positive campaign,” he said in a fiery Oct. 29 debate, accusing McGrath of misrepresenting his record. Among other things, he cited the fact that every single Democrat in the House voted in support for his bill to levy tough sanctions on North Korea, which passed 415-to-2 but is awaiting passage by the Senate. “Despite this narrative that somehow I am partisan, the reality is that I routinely work across the aisle to get things done for the people of this district.”

He also has a strong record of getting results for veterans, says his communications director, Jodi Whitaker. Among his initiatives: setting up the Sixth District Veterans Coalition, which has helped hundreds of veterans resolve disability claims; expanding GI bill eligibility; and allowing survivors of military sexual trauma to seek treatment outside of the VA system.

While McGrath has leaned heavily on her veteran status, some Kentucky veterans have accused her of misleading voters. Though she did become a Marine Corps pilot, during her 89 combat missions bombing Al Qaeda and the Taliban she wasn’t in the pilot’s seat. She was the back-seat weapons system operator.

Judith Cannon of North Middletown doesn’t buy the criticism.

“Was she crocheting or knitting back there?” asks Ms. Cannon outside the chili dinner. “I know how hard she had to work, how much she had to take ... how good she had to be.... If the Marines can trust her, I think I can, too.”

A viral video, funded by aunts

McGrath burst onto the national scene with a debut campaign video, talking about overcoming naysayers to fulfill her childhood dream of becoming a fighter pilot, that attracted more than a million views in just a few days, and brought in $1 million over the next few months.

But there was never any guarantee it would be a success. When McGrath decided to move back home to Kentucky after two decades in the Marines, she knew just two politicians. She called her aunts to ask for money, and went $7,000 in the red to produce that first video.

It was the tenor of that 2016 election that catapulted her into politics.

“The fake news, the divisiveness, the labeling each other.... I just shook my head. This isn’t us,” says McGrath, whose service galvanized her sense that Americans are all in this together.

She recalls a fellow pilot – “Sugar Bear” was his call sign – with whom she worked side by side in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, a Taliban stronghold. He was a Republican, like her husband, which made for lively debates.

“But man, we came together as Marines to get our job done,” she recalls. One day in 2010 he went out on a mission and was shot down. It’s losses like that, she says, that have given her a larger sense of what it means to serve the country and put people above politics.

“Sugar Bear and I might have disagreements but we never doubted our patriotism, we never doubted our love of country,” she says, adding that Moulton shares the same values. “It isn’t who we are as Americans.”

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