One is the first woman to fly an F/A-18 on a combat mission for the Marine Corps. The other is a former Miss America who traveled the country advocating for children. And both are "pink wave" Democrats challenging GOP incumbents in "red" states in the 2018 midterm elections.
“I think as women, we have sort of woken up a little bit,” Lt. Col. Amy McGrath said on ABC News’ "Powerhouse Politics" podcast with political director Rick Klein and senior congressional correspondent Mary Bruce. McGrath is running in Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District against Republican Rep. Andy Barr — who will have Vice President Mike Pence campaigning at his side this week.
“The reason why we have 19 percent women in places like Congress is because we don’t run at the same rate as men. And I think one of the things we‘re starting to realize is we have to step into the arena,” McGrath said.
McGrath grew up in Kentucky. She knew from a young age that she wanted to fly fighter jets — but it wasn’t until her senior year in high school that Congress lifted the ban on women in combat roles. She graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1997 and has served in Iraq and Afghanistan in a career that’s spanned 20 years.
A mother of three, it’s her first time running for political office after a long career in public service.
“The election of 2016 changed a lot of us,” McGrath said. “As someone who has been a Marine, how do you change things? You step up to the plate. And you are the one who says put me in.”
McGrath acknowledged it’s about the age-old mantra: Be the change you want to see.
And Mallory Hagan, who was crowned Miss New York and then, in 2013, Miss America, cited the same inspiration for her campaign. She’s running in Alabama's 3rd Congressional District against an incumbent who’s held the seat for longer than a decade, Republican Rep. Mike Rogers.
“We need more diversity at the table. We need gender diversity; we need racial diversity. And we also need generational diversity,” Hagan said, also speaking on ABC News’ "Powerhouse Politics" podcast with Klein and political reporter MaryAlice Parks.
Both Hagan and McGrath said they recognize there was more to President Donald Trump’s election than political disagreement: constituents felt a lack of communication with those in office.
They said they’re running on a broader message than that of any one party.
“I’m not running against President Trump and his agenda. I am running against the world that we are beginning to create,” Hagan said.
And although Trump spurred her run, McGrath finds common ground in the attraction to an outsider on the ticket - the reason she says many in Kentucky voted for him.
“Look, the establishment hasn’t worked” — for either the Democratic or the Republican party, she said. “And so people are excited about new leaders and folks who come from all walks of life, who didn’t grow up within the establishment. People who served their country not their political party. That’s really resonating.”
Lack of faith in the establishment is one of the reasons McGrath isn’t concerned that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, or the DCCC, hasn’t backed her.
“We’re seeing that the well-funded, sort of ‘having the establishment backing’ doesn’t really help you. In fact, you know people are sort of tired of that — they don’t trust the Democratic National Party. Many Democrats in Kentucky don’t. They are looking for somebody who is honest,” McGrath said.
Another view the candidates have in common: a moderate stance on gun control — a touchy subject in their southern states. McGrath is a gun owner, she said, and Hagan said she grew up with her father’s guns in the house.
But both talked about room for improvement. For McGrath, that means “everything should be on the table.”
“I was a Marine for 20 years. I’ve shot about every weapon you can think about,” McGrath said. “On the other hand, I’m a mom. I have 3 small kids. I believe gun violence is an epidemic in our country.”
Her number one concern? “Make sure our politicians are not bought off by special interests,” McGrath said.
Hagan, who said she considered buying a gun herself when she lived in big cities - New York and Los Angeles - said she thinks background checks and longer waiting periods should be a priority.
“I see nothing wrong with the Second Amendment. No one wants to take away anyone’s rights in that arena. But I do think we can start with some things all of us agree on,” she said.
Gun safety will be just one of the issues both Hagan and McGrath face on election day — but as Hagan put it, there is a battle to be one in just running.
“When I looked at Congress and saw that there were only four women under the age of 40, I said you know maybe this is the time, even if I don't win — which I am planning on doing — but even if I don’t, I’m setting an example and inspiring some other people who are in my age range to get involved in their community,” Hagan said.
This is part of a continuing series of interviews on the “Powerhouse Politics” podcast with first-time candidates in the 2018 midterm elections.