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Thomas Massie Crushes and Progressives Trail as Kentucky Stiffs the Culture War

Yesterday's elections in the deep red Bluegrass State remind us that national politics isn't always real life.

Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., and Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., (not pictured) hold a news conference on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2015, outside of the Capitol to de-authorize use of Capitol office space and staff provided to the recent ex-Speaker of the House. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The last time we saw Congressman Thomas Massie, he was ticking off everyone in Washington (same as the time before that and the time before that and…). Massie back in March infamously objected to a voice vote on the $2 trillion COVID stimulus package, forcing virus-wary members to return to the Capitol and form a quorum. The hysteria that ensued was, in retrospect, kind of funny. For the crime of forcing congressmen to make like millions of other essential employees and go to work, Massie was denounced as a “third rate Grandstander” by the president, who called for him to be thrown out of the GOP. House Republicans also trashed Massie, only to later file a lawsuit against Nancy Pelosi’s remote voting policy that employed the same constitutional reasoning he had.

That stimulus vote and Massie’s broader reputation as Dr. No were enough to earn him a serious primary challenge this year. His opponent, Todd McMurtry, clung to Trump like cellophane and claimed Massie was obstructing the president’s agenda. In Kentucky’s Fourth District, which voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton 65 percent to 29 percent, that’s a serious charge. The election was yesterday and the results are in:

Rep. Thomas Massie was declared the winner in Kentucky’s fourth district GOP primary Tuesday, despite President Trump’s past calls to “throw” Massie out of the Republican Party.

“Tonight’s victory sends a strong message that Republican voters in the 4th District of Kentucky want someone to represent them in Washington who will consistently stand up on principle, defend life, and support the Constitution,” Massie wrote in a statement Tuesday night.

Massie beat his challenger, Todd McMurtry with an 88 percent lead with 73 percent of the precinct votes in when The Associated Press called the race.

I don’t think, as many do, that this was some bracing repudiation of Trump. Massie also courted the president during the campaign, and McMurtry was found to have made disparaging comments about Trump on social media. I do think, however, that it shows that the boldfaced assumptions we sometimes make about politics aren’t always helpful. Massie is a libertarian who was condemned by the president; McMurtry is a Trump lover who sued CNN on behalf of the Covington Catholic kids. From 20,000 feet up, that looks like McMurtry in a wash. Yet local politics is more granular than that. It draws upon issues and curiosities that national observers can’t always see. And even in these unsettled times, it remains difficult to unseat an incumbent.

At least we can thank McMurtry for inspiring one of the better neocon rope-a-dopes of the year. After Massie stalled the coronavirus aid, a livid Congresswoman Liz Cheney rushed to donate to McMurtry’s campaign. Approximately seven seconds later, it emerged that McMurtry had sent racially inflammatory tweets, including one that complained about “some cartel-looking dude” who was “playing a video of some wild Mexican birthday party at full volume.” Whoops! Cheney promptly tripped over herself demanding that her donation be returned. And here we thought regime change in Kentucky was going to be a cakewalk.

In other news out of the Bluegrass State, Democrats there are deciding who will challenge Mitch McConnell for his Senate seat in the fall. That primary, between Amy McGrath and Charles Booker (among others), is still up in the air, as NBC News reports:

With 10 percent of the vote in by Wednesday morning, McGrath led Booker, 44 percent to 39.6 percent, a margin of slightly over 2,000 votes. But that tally includes only votes cast in person at the polls on Tuesday; none of the substantial number of mail-in ballots that could determine the outcome have been counted and will not be for days.

This is a classic Democratic contest between a shapeshifting establishmentarian with union backing (McGrath) and a progressive true-believer who’s inspired excitement among activists (Booker). McGrath was ordained two years ago by Chuck Schumer as national Democrats’ choice to challenge McConnell. She’s attracted criticism for flip-flopping over Brett Kavanaugh, whose nomination she first supported then opposed. Whereas Booker made headlines when he marched against the police killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville. He likes the Green New Deal and Medicare for All.

It was, we should acknowledge, a good night overall for progressives, with Booker still in contention and Jamaal Bowman likely to unseat longtime Democratic rep Eliot Engel in New York. Still, it’s worth noting that in Kentucky, the usual culture war assumptions failed to stick. The dichotomy du jour would dictate that Republicans nominate the Trumpian McMurtry and Democrats the progressive Booker. That this may not happen on either end reminds us that politics can be frustrating to pin down.

about the author

Matt Purple is a senior editor at The American Conservative.

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