FRANKFORT—There it was, tucked into the election returns in both the Sixth Congressional District race won by incumbent Republican Andy Barr.
The urban-rural divide is real and growing and it was a significant factor in Barr’s ability to fend off a stiff challenge from a fresh faced, well-funded candidate, retired U.S. Marine Lt. Colonel and fighter pilot Amy McGrath.
Barr won 17 of the 19 counties in the district – the rural counties; McGrath won the two counties that form the urban part of the district.
“Kentucky has become what every other southern state has become,” said Les Fugate, senior vice president of the Louisville public relations firm RunSwitch and a Republican.
“Every rural area has become more Republican and every urban area has become more Democratic,” Fugate said. “The red areas are getting redder and the blue areas are getting bluer.”
McGrath’s campaign manager, Mark Nickolas, acknowledged the divide and its impact on Barr’s win.
“We operated on the expectation that Democrats’ poor performance in rural areas was partly from not making an effort of showing up and listening and talking to people,” Nickolas said. That’s why the campaign opened field offices in every county; McGrath aggressively campaigned in the rural counties, even bringing in former Vice President Joe Biden to campaign for her in Bath County; and “showing the Republican and rural counties that they mattered to us as much as Fayette County.”
But it didn’t work.
Part of the reason may have been the popularity of President Donald Trump in those rural counties, according to Nickolas and Barr himself.
Barr invited Trump to campaign for him – at a rally in Madison County – and fully embraced the president even as some of his Republican House colleagues in other parts of the country kept Trump at arm’s length.
“I do think President Trump did help us,” Barr said. He said after Trump’s appearance in Richmond the campaign saw more volunteers show up and they sensed an increase in excitement and morale among its supporters.
But Barr said there’s another reason. “We did what we said we’d do” when he was first elected: supporting regulatory reform, supporting the coal industry, voting for tax cuts, and an emphasis on constituent services throughout the district.
Barr ran a “scorched earth” campaign against McGrath, according to Nickolas, attacking her as “too liberal for Kentucky” and a radical supporter of abortion “for any reason, at any time, right up until the time of birth,” something McGrath called “ridiculous and offensive.”
“And (Barr) paid no price because he didn’t have to deal with our attacking back,” Nickolas said. McGrath decided early in the campaign – in fact, she made it a public feature of her campaign – that she would not engage in attacks on her opponent.
“Amy was never going to go there,” he said. “That’s largely why she was running: that our politics have become so uncivil and nasty that voters are turned off.”
But not enough of them apparently.
Barr chafes at the idea he ran a negative campaign while she remained positive. He said he used McGrath’s “own words” that she was more liberal than anyone in Kentucky at a fundraising event and complained McGrath wouldn’t agree to multiple debates. The ads, he said, were the only way to contrast the two on their positions on important issues.
The “too liberal” label worked in the rural areas of the district, according to Fugate.
“I just think, at the end of the day, in Kentucky, a Democrat attached to the word liberal has a tough time winning an election,” he said.
While McGrath failed to cut into Barr’s strength in the rural counties, she outperformed the campaign’s expectations in Fayette County where she won by 24,777 votes. In 2012, Ben Chandler won the county by only 7,544 votes.
But she underperformed in Franklin County, winning by only 1,842 votes, 1,100 fewer than Chandler got in 2012.
“We thought we might win Franklin by 20 points,” Nickolas said. “Instead, we won by only nine.”
Barr points out he won Franklin County during his last two campaigns – although against less formidable opponents – and Trump surprised some by winning the county in 2016. Barr also said he’s worked hard to help Frankfort with such projects as the Second Street Corridor and the Bourbon Industry.
McGrath also targeted Madison County early on – she scheduled election night parties there in both the primary and general elections and it was the first field office she opened outside of Lexington.
Despite that, McGrath only picked up 236 more votes there than Chandler in 2012 while Barr increased his total in Madison by 1,300 votes over 2012.