The Democratic Party establishment’s choice to take on Sen. Mitch McConnell in Kentucky has won a narrow primary victory, though the bruising contest may have further lessened her chances of ousting the GOP Senate Majority Leader in November.
Amy McGrath, the 2018 U.S. House candidate backed by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, defeated the upstart campaign of Charles Booker in Kentucky on Tuesday after additional mail-in ballots were counted. McGrath now enters the general election matchup with McConnell not on the strength of a primary romp but flagging after an unexpectedly competitive fight with a rival who galvanized progressives in Kentucky and nationally.
McGrath, who entered the race in 2019, had a big head start over Booker, a state legislator who began his campaign in January. She has raised a staggering $41 million from a liberal base that viewed her as their best shot to get rid of McConnell.
But protests over police brutality—which roiled Kentucky, the state where EMT Breonna Taylor was killed by police—energized Booker’s campaign and positioned him as a key voice on race and justice within the party.
Despite the late surge from Booker, McGrath’s earlier entrance to the race and fundraising power helped her eke out a victory over her rival. Her win permits the Democratic establishment, which had instantly rallied around McGrath when she launched her campaign last year, to breathe a sigh of relief, for now.
A former fighter pilot who nearly defeated GOP Rep. Andy Barr for a Lexington-area House seat in 2018, McGrath was seen by Democrats as exactly the kind of candidate who could compete against McConnell given her military background and moderate stances befitting a red state Democrat.
But McGrath struggled to win over the left wing of the party. And Democrats quickly found that the candidate who was perfect on paper didn’t translate quite as well in reality, calling into question her ability to take on McConnell, a ruthless campaigner and savvy political operator.
After launching her bid, for example, McGrath was asked if she would have voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Her answer—a yes—was so ridiculed by the Democratic base that, under fire, she reversed and said she would not have voted for him.
Another apparent misstep during a debate, where McGrath cited family reasons for not attending Black Lives Matter protests in Kentucky, was quickly turned into an ad and used by Booker’s campaign to juxtapose the state lawmaker rallying with the public amid calls for “Justice for Breonna.”
This month, Booker’s progressive bona fides earned him the backing of Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who had previously tweeted favorably about McGrath.
“In Kentucky, we're used to being ignored,” Booker said during an MSNBC interview on the primary election day. “Nobody listens to us. Nobody pays attention, nobody hears us when we're crying out. And so I'm not surprised that as we were building the momentum, a lot of people didn't see it. But we were working anyhow.”
Days before the contest, McGrath told ABC news she wasn’t part of the political establishment as she tried to frame her campaign as being the most primed to run against McConnell rather than focusing on Booker making the primary close.
“(McConnell) now represents Washington, D.C. and the swamp and the moneyed special interests more than he represents teachers and firefighters and everyday people here,” McGrath said. “And I’ve built a team to be able to take him on, toe to toe.”
Complicating the primary contest was a tense waiting period over the actual primary results. Kentucky punted from its original primary date in May over pandemic concerns. And because of the coronavirus, the state’s Democratic governor and Republican secretary of state emphasized an election largely reliant on mail in voting.
That meant the results were only clear days after polls closed Tuesday. Even with McGrath’s fundraising, the effort to oust McConnell remains a Herculean one for Democrats. The Kentucky Republican, who has been in office since 1985, won his last campaign by nearly 16 points in 2014, and has more than $15 million in his campaign account according to the most recent campaign finance records.
Before the primary, McGrath boasted having more than $19 million in her June filing.
National Republicans, meanwhile, openly liken any contributions to McConnell’s opponent as lighting money on fire. But Democrats are attempting to win back the Senate this year, and while beating McConnell may prove difficult, there’s hope that by diverting his money and attention to his own race, they could have a better shot at winning back seats in states like North Carolina and Maine.