UK students keep politics civil at Barr-McGrath-Harris debate watch party

During the a debate watch party, students listened closely to the words of the Amy McGrath and Andy Barr, two candidates in Kentucky’s Sixth District Congressional race, in the Britt Brockman Senate Chamber on Oct. 29, 2018. | Photo by Sarah Michels

Sarah Michels

If you live in Lexington and own a radio or television, you’ve probably heard the incessant back-and-forth that is the Sixth Congressional District race between Andy Barr and Amy McGrath. With an overwhelming number of bold campaign ads and strong endorsements, this district election has received a great deal of national attention leading up to Election Day.

Some may say the campaign has been more of a congressional fight than a congressional race, and Monday night’s debate was no different. However, while the debate may have been a continuation of a hostile congressional race, the debate watch party on UK’s campus was quite the opposite.

Sponsored by the College Republicans, College Democrats, Leading Women of Tomorrow, Phi Sigma Alpha and the political science department, the watch party took place in the Brit Brockman Senate Chamber in the student center on Monday night.

For the first time, Democrat McGrath, Republican Barr, and Libertarian Frank Harris sat at the same table face-to-face, and things got aggressive quickly. The majority of the debate revolved around economic issues, the Affordable Care Act and election integrity, specifically concerning Russia.

At the same time, UK students ate pizza and Amy McGrath-themed candy (chocolate is always bipartisan) while paying attention to the candidates’ points, and even laughing together at their feisty responses and facial expressions. According to Daniel Smith, the president of the College Republicans, the event was a success.

“We had a great crowd and everyone seemed to enjoy watching the debate, discussing current issues, and just spending time together,” he said. “The entire event was very civil.”

Several students, including attendee Jake Smith, remarked on the impressive— and cordial— showing of both parties.

There hasn’t been an event like this where the College Democrats and College Republicans have gotten together in a long time, according to Cam Newton, the president of the College Democrats. In light of the increasing polarization of today’s politics, as well as last week’s shootings and mail bomb threats, Newton thought this was the perfect “act of unity.” For him, it shows the UK community that Democrats and Republicans aren’t enemies.

“We’re all still UK students, all members of this community, and like it or not, even if we disagree with each other, you can’t get anything done without some ability to trust one another— to respect one another— even if their ideas don’t always align with you,” he said.  

Cameron French, who came up with the idea for this event, shared the same perspective, saying that he wants to send a message that “we are sick and tired of all the bickering and partisanship that happens, not only in Washington, but (in Lexington) as well.”

College-age voters have the power to shift the political culture in a more positive direction, and “we deserve to have a seat at the table,” he said. 

UK students are becoming increasingly interested in politics, and this event offered them an avenue to engage more than before. Freshman Margaret Stearman was enthusiastic about this event, choosing to come because she “just wanted to know more about what’s going on in the country and specifically our area.”

According to Shazia Olivares, head of Leading Women of Tomorrow, she’s not alone. Olivares believes that while the youth typically have the lowest voter turnout, and “for many students, this will probably be the first debate they watch,” we are heading in the right direction.

“I hope that once they find the right candidate, they are empowered to become more politically active and use their resources to become tomorrow’s leaders,” she said.

Each of the event’s sponsors shared the desire that this event brings forth similar bipartisan events where the students of UK can shake off the political intolerance of the past and embrace a more civil discourse for the future.

Overall, as Smith puts it, Monday night’s event “sends a message of hope” and “should be inspiring” to other young people in the community wanting to get more politically involved. Instead of reverting to the negative discourse or attacks typical of the McGrath-Barr congressional race, UK students are taking the high road, demonstrating along the way that the future leaders of Kentucky and America are here.