Primary night promises a Democratic Party clash

Ally Mutnick and James Arkin

A much-anticipated showdown between the progressive and establishment wings of the Democratic Party is underway as voters in five states go to the polls Tuesday for primary elections.

Polls are already closed statewide in Kentucky, where Democratic voters are choosing between party favorite Amy McGrath and state Rep. Charles Booker to face Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for whom rank-and-file Democrats’ disdain rivals only that for President Donald Trump.

McGrath, who was endorsed by Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, appeared on a glide path to the nomination for most of the past year. But Booker has charged late, driven by endorsements from national progressives like Bernie Sanders and the protests over racial injustice and police misconduct in his hometown of Louisville.

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The other major primaries are in New York, where insurgent liberals are challenging nearly every Democratic member of the delegation in and around New York City — two years after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory against a sitting member of Congress. No incumbent is more endangered on Tuesday than 16-term Rep. Eliot Engel, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who is facing educator Jamaal Bowman.

Engel is far from the only Democratic member facing a stiff primary challenge: Reps. Tom Suozzi, Gregory Meeks, Yvette Clarke, Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney are all also facing intraparty opponents on Tuesday.

Polls close in New York at 9 p.m. Eastern Time. But with at least half the votes expected to be cast by mail, it’s likely that some close elections will remain unresolved at the end of Tuesday night. Elections officials aren’t allowed to tabulate absentee ballots until a week after Tuesday’s primary.

In Kentucky — where final results also aren’t expected until next week — McGrath remains the favorite, but Booker has surged since late May in the rapidly tightening contest. Booker has created a broad coalition of support: He has endorsements from around two dozen colleagues in the state legislature, plus several other prominent Kentucky Democrats.

A number of progressive organizations made late endorsements after he began to surge in the race, helping boost his fundraising down the stretch. McGrath has little support among the state’s establishment, but she does have the backing of the national party and many senators who view her as best suited to challenge McConnell in the fall.

McGrath, who demonstrated her fundraising prowess during her losing 2018 House bid, has been one of the party’s best fundraisers this cycle, thanks largely to enthusiasm from small-dollar donors eager to topple McConnell. She raised more than $41 million and has outspent McConnell by a significant margin in the race.

But some Democrats were frustrated by her campaign launch last summer — she said she would have supported Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court, only to reverse herself later that day — and that has lingered throughout the race. The lack of support from the state’s Democratic leaders left her open to a potential challenge.

Internal polling by McGrath’s campaign has continued to show her leading by a comfortable margin in the closing days of the race. But the state shattered its previous turnout for a primary, and the large-scale use of absentee voting, combined with Booker’s late momentum, has most Democrats acknowledging a sense of uncertainty about a possible upset.

The marquee House race of the night is Engel’s race against Bowman, a middle school principal.

Bowman nabbed endorsements from Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside help from progressives groups.

Many in his own party view Bowman as the slight favorite against Engel, who was first elected in 1988 and had a thin presence in the district as it was grappling with the coronavirus pandemic.

A massive field of Democrats are also vying to capture two open seats held by retiring Reps. José Serrano and Nita Lowey. Progressives have largely united around attorney Mondaire Jones for Lowey’s seat in the northern New York City suburbs, though the race also includes state legislators, a former Obama-era defense official and a self-funding prosecutor.

In the race to replace Serrano, Democrats are hoping they can block a victory by Ruben Diaz Sr., a reverend who opposes gay marriage and abortion but whose family has long-running ties to the Bronx.

Elsewhere in the state, Democrats will pick challengers to GOP Reps. John Katko and Lee Zeldin and Republicans will nominate opponents to go up against Democratic Reps. Max Rose, Anthony Brindisi and Antonio Delgado.

In Virginia, Democrats nominated physician Cameron Webb to face Republican Bob Good for a sprawling district where Good, a staunch social conservative, ousted GOP Rep. Denver Riggleman in a party convention earlier this month.

And in Western North Carolina, GOP voters in former Rep. Mark Meadows’ congressional district are picking his replacement: the woman Meadows, who is now White House chief of staff, endorsed to succeed him, Lynda Bennett, or 24-year-old Madison Cawthorn. But Bennett, who was also endorsed by Trump, trailed Cawthorn in early returns.

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