The manager of Amy McGrath’s Kentucky Senate campaign was behind the recent firing of McGrath’s potential rival in the Democratic primary, according to Kentucky sources with knowledge of the unusual development in the high-profile race. 

On Friday, WLEX, an NBC affiliate in Lexington, announced that it had fired Matt Jones as the host of “Hey, Kentucky,” a show he had launched on the station four years ago. Jones, Kentucky’s most popular sports radio host, has been openly deliberating a challenge to Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, and has been publicly critical of the early stages of McGrath’s campaign. 

Mark Nickolas, McGrath’s campaign manager, has boasted in Kentucky political circles that he was responsible for Jones’s firing, according to sources with knowledge of the situation. His efforts set up a potentially epic campaign blunder: Jones has been pondering a challenge to McGrath, and the fact that he is no longer employed by the TV station removes one of his most persuasive reasons not to run. After all, he no longer has a TV show to lose. Nickolas did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for McGrath told the Courier-Journal, a Kentucky newspaper, that the campaign had “nothing to do with” Jones’s firing. 

Jones discussed his firing in a Monday interview on his radio show, saying he believed Nickolas to be responsible. “He was the one who pressured to make that happen,” Jones said. “If not for him, I’d still be hosting the show. And I knew that. It is also true, because I heard from many people, that he went around bragging about it. I mean, he went around to people, Amy McGrath’s campaign man, and bragged that he was the person to do it.”

McGrath burst out of the gate raising more than $7 million and locking down support from the national Democratic Party establishment when she launched on July 9, setting up what looked to be a two-person match between her and McConnell. 

Her launch was marred by a series of missteps, odd claims, and flip-flops.

But her launch was marred by a series of missteps, odd claims, and flip-flops, capped by her assertion that she would have supported Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. That statement contradicted her position from a year earlier, and she very quickly returned to saying that she would have opposed Kavanaugh’s nomination. 

McGrath’s stumbles created an opening for a competitive Democratic primary, and a number of contenders, including Jones, began floating the possibility of challenging her for the nomination. As Jones inched closer to a decision, observers in the state speculated that he would ultimately be uninterested in giving up his position as a popular radio and TV host in exchange for a long-shot bid for the Senate. 

But then, on Friday, Jones announced that WLEX fired him from the “Hey, Kentucky” show, citing his involvement in politics and his forthcoming book, “Mitch, Please! How Mitch McConnell Sold Out Kentucky (and America Too).” Asked for comment, WLEX directed us to a statement on its website explaining that the decision to fire Jones was consistent with the station’s commitment to “fairness across its platforms.” The show was not canceled, a spokesperson said. 

In July, Jones was pulled from the air temporarily, a move that the station said came after a complaint from one of the Senate campaigns. (The McConnell campaign has said that it did not object, and there’s no evidence that they did, which leaves only the McGrath campaign.) Jones had been critical on air of McGrath’s launch. Jones is one of several high-profile hosts who’ve left the network this summer.

Matt Jones, right, host of Kentucky Sports Radio talks with his broadcasting partner Ryan Lemond during his radio show in Fancy Farm, Ky., July 31, 2015. Jones, will be the emcee of Kentucky's Fancy Farm political picnic to be held Saturday. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

Matt Jones, right, host of the “Hey, Kentucky” sports radio program, talks with his broadcasting partner Ryan Lemond during the show in Fancy Farm, Ky., on July 31, 2015.

Photo: Timothy D. Easley/AP

McGrath shot to fame with a viral 2018 campaign video that celebrated her ability to overcome gender discrimination in order to become a fighter pilot and included no policy positions. Controversially, her ad used real footage of a target — and presumably the people inside it — being incinerated by American bombs. It was part of her ultimately unsuccessful bid to unseat Republican Rep. Andy Barr in Kentucky’s 6th District — her first run for public office. She outperformed her campaign’s projections in the central city of Lexington, but Barr held onto strongholds in 17 of the district’s 19 counties. She ended up losing by only 3.2 percentage points, eating into Barr’s 22-point lead over his Democratic opponent in 2016. Her loss outside Lexington came despite the McGrath campaign’s heavy emphasis on engaging voters in rural areas, opening offices in every county in the district.

When McGrath finally announced earlier this summer that she’d be taking on McConnell, Jones took the moment to illustrate how, he thought, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer had given up on Kentucky in his quest to secure a Democratic majority. Her decision to run was a win for Schumer, who wouldn’t have to expend resources finding a candidate himself and could count on McGrath to tie up McConnell’s money even if she wouldn’t actually be able to pull off a win. 

“She announces and all the Democratic presidential candidates — or most of them — endorse her, all the congressional people endorse her, all the big donors endorse her, and all of a sudden, she has $5.5 million and the theory is, well, that scares everybody else out and now we have our nominee. And that’s how it works. And by the way, that’s how it works in nearly every state,” Jones said on a recent episode of “The Matt Jones Podcast.” “It should be about the citizens picking who they like,” he went on. “Instead, what happens is Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer pick who they like, and there becomes the senators.”

Jones saw an opening for the Senate seat after McGrath’s bizarre launch last month. “I like her, this is not a knock on her, but she has become so robotic and become so consulted that I don’t even know what she stands for anymore. And I think that’s what a lot of people felt,” he told his podcast co-host.

Nickolas is not a cookie-cutter Washington campaign consultant. McGrath’s 2018 campaign largely marked a return to politics for the longtime Democratic consultant and former Kentucky political hand and commentator who had withdrawn from the space for much of the last decade. He suspended his 20-some-year political career in 2011 when he moved to New York to pursue a master of arts in film and media studies at the New School. A California native, Nickolas spent about a decade managing and consulting on Democratic campaigns around the country before launching his widely read and influential Kentucky political blog, the Bluegrass Report, in 2005. In 2006, Nickolas sued former Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher for blocking access to his blog on state computers after Nickolas was quoted in a New York Times article criticizing the governor. 

In the early aughts, he worked on the gubernatorial and House campaigns of former Rep. Ben Chandler, the gubernatorial campaign of then-state Rep. Jody Richards, the Senate campaign of Tim Johnson in South Dakota, and Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign.

His next task as McGrath’s campaign manager may be fending off a primary challenge from a candidate he helped nudge into the race.

Update: August 19, 2019
This article has been updated to include a denial from Amy McGrath’s campaign and a quote from Matt Jones.