There was never really a question about how U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, would vote on the Republican plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. He rode into office in 2012 on his desire to repeal Obamacare.
He’s railed against the Dodd-Frank financial regulations and the rising national debt. He’s written a position paper saying President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” made poor people dependent upon government handouts.
Barr is a true conservative. The kind of establishment Republican that rose from being a young lawyer in Ernie Fletcher’s gubernatorial administration to the halls of Congress.
But in an election year framed as a referendum on President Donald Trump, Barr’s role as a loyal Republican serves as his greatest asset and his biggest vulnerability as he tries to fend off political newcomer Amy McGrath.
While some Republican House candidates have shunned Trump in other states, Barr made the decision to campaign with him on a stage in Richmond. He’s making the bet that Kentucky’s Sixth Congressional District has become conservative enough that its voters will send him back to Washington even as the president remains unpopular nationally.
On paper, that’s a safe bet. Trump won the district by 15 points in 2016 and Barr won it by 22 points. But McGrath, a former fighter pilot, has built her campaign as an anti-establishment candidate who’s goal in Congress would be to put country over party.
McGrath has been critical of Barr’s voting record and his silence on some of Trump’s more controversial statements, saying he illustrates what’s wrong with politics.
“Andy Barr is about as partisan as you can get,” McGrath said in a recent phone interview.
Barr has been a consistent vote for the Republican Party. According to the website FiveThirtyEight, he has voted with House Speaker Paul Ryan 85 percent of the time on roll call votes.
But Congress itself has become notoriously partisan. There are no Republican members who are more liberal than any Democratic members and no Democratic members who are more conservative than a Republican member, according to Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky.
“Congress really doesn’t have an ideological center any more,” Voss said.
Among the Republicans who represent Kentucky in Washington, Barr falls in the middle of the pack. He’s more moderate than fellow Republican Reps. Thomas Massie and James Comer, but he’s more conservative than Reps. Hal Rogers and Brett Guthrie.
“Andy Barr is less conservative than the average Republican serving in the current Congress, at least as regards the main issues that divide the two parties,” Voss said. “Barr has been less conservative than the average Republican for every congressional term in which he has served.”
The Sixth Congressional District has more registered Democrats than registered Republicans, but much of that is based on the region’s Democratic legacy. As Republicans have gained control of state government in Kentucky, the district has followed suit, sending Barr to congress with larger and larger margins.
“There are a lot of liberals in Lexington, but overall I still think the district is a right of center district,” said Billy Piper, a Republican political strategist. “I still think Andy has a bit of an advantage ideologically.”
Voters in the district are about equally split on their approval of Trump, according to recent polling in the district.
Throughout the campaign, and during Trump’s tenure in Washington, Barr has embraced the president. At campaign events he touts building a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico and says Trump has restored America’s international standing. When Trump refused to support the U.S. intelligence community’s consensus that Russia launched a cyberattack on the 2016 presidential election, Barr waited until Trump backtracked before commenting.
On the one issue he’s been most critical of the Trump administration — the aluminum and steel tariffs that led other countries to impose sanctions on the United States — Barr couched his criticism by saying he approved of the intent behind Trump’s actions.
McGrath has used that record to paint Barr as too partisan for the district.
“That itself is a partisan attack,” Barr said in an interview. “The truth is, I’ve been rated the most bipartisan member of the Kentucky delegation. My record of bipartisan work speaks for itself.”
Barr went on to cite three specific pieces of legislation to prop-up his bipartisan bona fides: a bill that put financial sanctions on North Korea that was unanimously approved by the House but didn’t pass the Senate; a bill to prevent race-day doping in the horse industry that hasn’t made it out of the House; and a provision he worked on with Rep. Maxine Waters, D-California, that was included in the annual Defense Act that gives the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States more authority to monitor the financial transactions of China and other countries.
“If she’s so dissatisfied, ask her if she’s dissatisfied with the bipartisan work we’re doing,” Barr said.
“What bipartisan work?” she responded, sarcastically.
When asked about the specific legislation Barr cited, McGrath remained unimpressed.
On the North Korea sanctions, she said “it’s symbolic” and compared it to naming a post office. She commended him for his effort on the horse racing bill, but said it’s “too one-sided” because it doesn’t address the concerns of smaller trainers and breeders. She said his provision in the Defense Act was “fine.”
“I do think it’s ironic that the person he says that he’s working with bipartisan-wise is the exact same person the President of the United States demonized and tried to tie me to,” McGrath said, referencing Barr’s work with Waters
McGrath’s dismissal of Barr’s efforts match the criticism she’s made on the campaign trail that Barr is a career politician who will always do the bidding of his party.
“Nobody is wild about Washington right now, so it’s a smart argument that he’s a follower,” said Piper, the GOP strategist.
Barr and Republicans have used the same attack on McGrath, painting her as too liberal for the district and saying she would be just another yes vote for the agenda of Democratic leaders in the House.
One of the latest ads from the Congressional Leadership Fund, Paul Ryan’s super PAC, implied that if McGrath won it would pave the way for mob rule. So did Trump.
“I had to do a little checking. ‘Who’s Andy running against?’’ Trump said in Richmond. “This is an extreme liberal named Amy McGrath, chosen by Nancy Pelosi, Maxine Waters and the radical Democrat mob.”
McGrath has tried to distance herself from the liberal narrative by pointing out that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee encouraged Lexington Mayor Jim Gray to run against her in the Democratic primary. Pelosi’s PAC, the House Majority PAC, has spent $520,526 in the district during the General Election campaign.
Barr, though, is leaving little daylight between himself and Republican leaders, hosting Ryan at an event in Georgetown on Tuesday. Both men spoke out against Trump’s controversial proposal to end birthright citizenship for the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants, but Barr quickly pivoted to talk about the need for more border security, a favorite topic of the president.
“This president is a man of action. Other people resist, but this president gets results,” Barr said at his October rally with Trump in Richmond. “...Mr. President, I’m with you to fight for the American people.”