After Narrow Primary Win, McGrath Will Need Progressive Vote To Defeat McConnell

July 2, 2020 by Gaspard Le Dem
Amy McGrath address supporters at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond, Ky., on November 6, 2018. (Jason Davis/Getty Images/TNS)

WASHINGTON – Amy McGrath successfully fended off a late surge from progressive challenger Charles Booker last month in Kentucky’s Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. 

After a week of painstaking ballot counting, McGrath prevailed against Booker by just 15,000 votes out of more than 544,000 votes cast, a less than three point margin.

Her narrow victory raises questions about her ability in November to unseat Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a six-term incumbent and the nation’s top congressional Republican.

A darling of national Democrats, McGrath had long been considered a favorite in the primary, raising $41 million in campaign contributions and picking up a key endorsement from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

But a few weeks before election day, Booker seized on a wave of nationwide protests against racial injustice to mount a powerful challenge against his more moderate opponent.

Now, experts say McGrath faces long odds against McConnell unless she can recapture some of the more progressive voters energized by Booker’s campaign. 

“McGrath will not stand a chance unless a lot of Booker supporters come out and support her,” says Dewey Clayton, a professor of political science at the University of Louisville.

Booker, Kentucky’s youngest Black state lawmaker, dominated in metropolitan areas with a large share of minority voters like Louisville’s Jefferson County, where he beat McGrath by more than 35,000 votes.

Clayton says Booker’s on-the-ground campaigning and ability to capitalize on the Black Lives Matter movement played a huge role in his success among urban voters. “The moment was racial protest, police brutality and he seized the moment on that,” he says.

In Louisville, Booker’s hometown, he was front and center at protests, speaking out against police brutality and the recent killing of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police. Meanwhile, McGrath was sharply criticized for not participating in demonstrations, offering a vague excuse for her absence in an interview on local television.

Moving forward, Clayton says the former Marine pilot will need to learn from Booker’s campaign by tapping into the frustrations of minority voters in areas like Louisville and Lexington. 

“This country is at a reckoning point — we’re reflecting on race and what it means and she’s got to be in tune to that,” says Clayton. “It wouldn’t be a bad idea if she tried to borrow some people from Booker’s campaign and have her ear to the ground.”

But mobilizing Booker’s base could prove difficult for McGrath after a primary between the candidates that left many progressive voters feeling disillusioned about her campaign.

Booker on Thursday seemed to extend an olive branch to McGrath, though he stopped short of fully endorsing his former rival’s campaign.

“We are sick of generational poverty. We are sick of structural racism, and a status quo that is killing us,” he said in a tweet. “Our common enemy is Mitch. We must beat him, so we can do the real work. I understand that, and am reaching out to @AmyMcGrathKY to discuss how we can truly work together.”

Earlier in the week, Booker had slammed McGrath for her moderate stance in a concession statement published on Tuesday,

“We’ve proven you don’t have to pretend to be a Republican to run as a Democrat in Kentucky, and that people want big, bold solutions to the enormous crises our state is facing, whether that’s structural racism and inequity, generational poverty, climate change, or a health care system that leaves millions uninsured and uncovered,” Booker said.

Polling conducted by Democratic pollster Civiqs in mid-June, shortly before the Democratic primary, showed McGrath trailing a full 20 points behind McConnell. Those numbers will likely change in the lead-up to November, but the substantial gap indicates she has a long way to go.

To complicate matters, McGrath could risk alienating her moderate base by trying to appeal to progressive voters. Booker ran his campaign on a platform that most moderates would balk at, including hallmark progressive policies like Medicare For All and the Green New Deal. “That’s going to be a very delicate dance she’s going to have to walk,” says Clayton. 

Since McGrath launched her campaign in July of 2019, her multi-million dollar media blitz has largely focused on criticizing McConnell and other Republican leaders like Kentucky Gov. Mike DeWine.

In an ad that first aired last month, she attacked McConnell for trying to dismantle the Affordable Care Act in 2017. “Imagine trying to tackle a global pandemic with millions of people uninsured,” McGrath narrates. “We can’t let Mitch McConnell return to the Senate to try again.”

Clayton says that antagonizing McConnell will only get McGrath so far, and that she will need to build a clear message of her own to be successful in November. “She’s going to need to come out and give people a reason to vote for her, and let people know why she is the better alternative for Kentucky than McConnell is.”

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