Centrist Dem Amy McGrath beats Charles Booker in Kentucky primary to face McConnell

U.S. Senate candidate Amy McGrath speaks to members of the media during a visit to Thankful Hearts Food Pantry in Pikeville, Ky., Monday, June 22, 2020. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)
U.S. Senate candidate Amy McGrath. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)

Retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Amy McGrath survived a tight primary race in Kentucky to win the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate over progressive state Sen. Charles Booker.

McGrath, backed by tens of millions in donations and the support of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, banked enough mail-in votes to survive an in-person surge from Booker. The 45-year-old former F/A-18 pilot will now embark on a long-shot quest to defeat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Booker, 35, entered the race in January and caught up to McGrath despite her huge edge in fundraising and her name recognition, based on a viral ad for a failed bid for a House seat in 2018. He gained momentum amid the protests that followed the deaths of George Floyd and of Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police in Booker’s hometown of Louisville.

“Standing in the streets crying with people who are facing trauma, the same trauma I carry from cousins who have been murdered over the last four years, the commonwealth has really taken note,” Booker said in the final days of the campaign. “It has amounted to a big boost in fundraising, a big boost in support.”

The race crystallized an ongoing debate among national Democrats over the right strategy to pursue in red states such as Kentucky: nominate a centrist candidate (preferably with a military background) who can peel off Republican voters at the margin, or a progressive candidate (especially one of color, like Booker) who can motivate Black voters.

McGrath raised $41 million since entering the race through June 3, against roughly $800,000 for Booker, who saw a surge in the final weeks. According to Open Secrets, more than 96 percent of McGrath’s fundraising came from out of state, versus 54 percent for Booker.

Election Day was June 23, but due to a flood of absentee ballots, results were held for a week as they were tabulated. In the week leading up to the last day of in-person voting, McGrath spent $3.1 million on television advertising.

Public polling in the race had been scarce, but one survey released earlier this month showed Booker with an 8-point lead. Mike Broihier, a farmer and former Marine colonel, was the third candidate in the race and earned the endorsement of the local chapter of Indivisible, a prominent progressive group.

McGrath was backed by the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee in February, but Booker won the endorsements of the state’s two largest papers, popular sports broadcaster Matt Jones (who had also considered a run) and Alison Lundergan Grimes, the former Kentucky secretary of state who was the Democratic candidate for Senate against McConnell in 2014.

Prominent national progressives, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, also backed Booker.

The Louisville Courier-Journal chided national Democrats for the early support of McGrath, who struggled with her campaign launch last summer when she said she would have voted to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh before almost immediately reversing course and saying she wouldn’t. Her campaign received a cease-and-desist letter from coal miners who said they did not consent to being used in a political ad.

“We also believe the national Democratic Party was too quick to offer its full support and fundraising apparatus to a candidate who has never held public office and stumbled out of the gate when announcing her candidacy,” wrote the paper’s editorial board in its endorsement of Booker.

While McConnell is personally unpopular in Kentucky, he’s repeatedly fended off both Democratic and Republican challengers in previous cycles. He’ll also be on the ballot with President Trump, who won the state by 30 points in 2016. Democrats did win a tight governor’s race in 2019, but McConnell won his last race, against Grimes, by 16 points.


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