In Conservative Kentucky, Power of Female Candidates Is Tested in Key House Race

Amy McGrath, the Democratic nominee for a House seat in Kentucky, will need to win rural, traditionally Republican parts of her district as well as more Democratic-leaning cities like Frankfort, above.

VERSAILLES, Ky. — Ben Chandler knows how it feels to win and lose Kentucky’s Sixth Congressional District.

The area rambles from the Bluegrass region to the Appalachian Mountains to the east. Overwhelmingly white and culturally conservative, it is an uneasy mix of working-class struggles and old-money prosperity — bourbon distilleries and luxuriant horse farms, one very large auto plant and the University of Kentucky. President Trump and the Second Amendment are popular here, but not in that order. Reverence for veterans runs deep.

Amy McGrath, a Naval Academy graduate, Marine combat aviator and something of a Chandler protégé, is persuaded a Democrat can once again be elected to the House in this district. Mr. Chandler, the last Democrat to do so, had to develop what he called an unorthodox calculus for winning over voters: “The politics of confusion.”

Credit...Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

“I didn’t have the luxury of voting the way I felt or taking the positions I wanted to take or even the best positions,” he said in an interview on the farm that has been in his family since 1784. “I had to balance that with what the people I represented wanted.”

By 2012, after four terms in office, Mr. Chandler found that formula no longer worked. In an increasingly polarized country, there was no longer a middle of the road in the Sixth District. A Republican, Andy Barr, defeated him and has won re-election two times since.

Now, Ms. McGrath’s race against Mr. Barr will test the limits of any Democratic wave in the midterm elections and of the power of female candidates in a year with a record number of women running for Congress. If Ms. McGrath and others like her can win, Democrats would almost certainly retake control of the House.

She will have to run up large margins in the few heavily populated areas that lean Democratic, such as Lexington and Frankfort. More challenging, she will have to win the votes of rural residents who feel alienated from the national Democratic Party, stepping squarely into the culture wars over guns, same-sex rights and access to health care.

The electoral tripwires are many. In Anderson County to the west, bourbon distillers and Baptists coexist. In Bath County to the east, historical markers lionize the life of the Confederate general John Bell Hood. In Fayette County, in the middle, voters elected Jim Gray, who is gay, as mayor of Lexington. In Woodford County, where the moderate Mr. Chandler lives, one banner promoting a “pro-life” event and another celebrating gay rights were recently hanging off the courthouse railing.

The economy in most of the district is doing well, with pockets of poverty, mostly in rural areas. In Scott County, where Ms. McGrath lives, the largest Toyota plant in the world churns out Camrys and Lexus sedans, a factory that could be hurt by Mr. Trump’s proposed tariffs. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail runs through the district, attracting tourists to another export that has been targeted for retaliatory tariffs by trading partners suffering from the president’s attacks on their steel and aluminum industries.

The horse industry is as durable as the bluegrass — this year’s Triple Crown winner, Justify, lives on WinStar Farm, adjacent to Mr. Chandler’s homestead. In Clark County, Ale-8-One soda is a local staple made in Winchester and sold throughout the district. Many of the nation’s chemical weapons are stored at the Blue Grass Army Depot in Richmond, another sizable employer. The eastern part of the district is less well educated and more economically distressed.

A Democrat’s path to victory starts in Lexington, a city of more than 300,000 in a county with the state’s highest percentage of college graduates that often provides about 40 percent of the overall vote. Lexington is ringed by suburbs where Democrats are hoping Ms. McGrath can pick off the votes of suburban women and men who will be drawn to her military service.

In the other 18 counties outside Fayette, Mr. Trump won with an average of 63 percent of the vote. Mr. Barr, who has deep reserves of trust and affection in rural precincts, won his race that year by 22 percentage points.

But Ms. McGrath may have the kind of profile that can bring around some conservatives, win over moderates and appeal to liberals.

“The word most people would apply to her is tough,” said Al Cross, the director at the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. “She has a pretty well-defined identity.”

In her primary victory over Mr. Gray, Ms. McGrath won handily in all of the rural counties, including Anderson, where tobacco farms have either gone to seed or given way to subdivisions as it has evolved into a bedroom community for Frankfort or Lexington. Mr. Trump won nearly 75 percent of the vote here.

But Ms. McGrath decided early that she would compete for votes in the county. In November, she came to sit for an interview in the office of Ben Carlson, the editor and publisher of the weekly Anderson News, the principal source of local news, with a subscription price of $30 a year and a market penetration of 32 percent. “Congressional candidates don’t flock into The Anderson News asking us to interview them,” Mr. Carlson said.

He delivered a 3,500-word, front-page article, covering a number of issues, including ones that could cause Ms. McGrath trouble in the race against Mr. Barr. “What really surprised me was how honest and open she was about things she knew dang well weren’t going to be popular here,” he said.

Mr. Carlson attends dozens of community meetings a month and prides himself on being able to gauge sentiment. “She was accessible,” he said of Ms. McGrath’s campaign appearances. “People love the Marine Corps thing.”

They do not like her position on guns, he said, because Ms. McGrath calls for background checks and banning bump stocks on weapons. “This is very, very, very pro-gun country,” Mr. Carlson said. “An assault rifle ban will go over like a lead balloon. There are more AR-15s in this county than you can shake a stick at.”

In another rural area, Donna Barnes, the chairwoman of the Republican Party in Montgomery County, agrees. The people here “ are passionate about the Second Amendment,” she said. “Ms. McGrath has changed her stance on gun control and when she did that, she actually lost some of the interest of Montgomery County.”

Ms. Barnes also said that voters needed to hear more about Ms. McGrath than her biography. “Basically, all we are hearing is ‘I am a veteran, vote for me.’”

For many others, though, Ms. McGrath’s military service will be appealing and could help to inoculate her on a number of issues. To break through, she has opened a number of field offices in rural counties, including Clark, where her staff has a presence on the historic Main Street in Winchester.

Ed Burtner, the mayor of Winchester and former Marine who served in Vietnam, is no fan of Mr. Trump because of the president’s criticism of Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, but he said the president’s support runs deep here. “I haven’t found a single person that said they voted for Trump that has also not said they wouldn’t do it again,” Mr. Burtner said.

“We’ve got that conservative base and in some cases ultra conservative base,” he said. “And she has to recognize that’s here, and that’s going to be in a lot of the communities where she is running.”

Henry Branham, a local judge and Democrat, said that people did not engage him on the subject of the president, but that hardly meant an embrace of his party. “Clark County is so far from Nancy Pelosi, it’s pathetic,” Mr. Branham said.

Republicans tried to quickly define Ms. McGrath as too liberal for the district.

“People accepted gay marriage; they don’t like it,” Mr. Carlson said of people in Anderson County. “Transgender in the military. A lot of the feedback was, I really like her, but boy, she is awfully liberal.”

But her military résumé provides a strong counterpoint. Lawrenceburg, the Anderson County seat, has a healing field with flags to honor every Kentuckian who has been killed in the war on terrorism. The American Legion is the largest civic group.

Mr. Chandler, whose grandfather, A. B.Chandler, was governor and senator before becoming the commissioner of Major League Baseball, knows the district like few others, and he believes Ms. McGrath has a powerful rejoinder to being labeled far left.

“How do you caricature someone as a liberal who has bombed terrorists?” Mr. Chandler said. “That’s ludicrous. I hope they try it. Look at Barr in the face and say how many terrorists have you killed?”

“Young woman wanted to be a fighter pilot at an early age,” he went on. “Went against all of the societal norms,” he said, adding, “A mother of three dropping bombs on terrorists — you don’t run across that profile every day.”

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