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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on March 18.
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The Kentucky Senate primary showcases the 2 theories of how to beat Mitch McConnell

Amy McGrath is facing a competitive challenger in Charles Booker. Both Democrats have an uphill battle to topple McConnell.

Two years ago, retired Marine Corps fighter pilot Amy McGrath was the insurgent outsider who bested the party-backed candidate in the Democratic primary for a key House race.

Now, McGrath is the party-backed candidate competing to run against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the fall, and facing an insurgent challenger of her own in state Rep. Charles Booker. Booker is the youngest black state lawmaker in Kentucky, and his primary effort has gained serious momentum in recent weeks.

McGrath and Booker represent the two different theories of how Democrats could plausibly beat McConnell — a Kentucky political institution and the most powerful man in the Senate, who is loathed by Democrats across the nation. McGrath is the archetype of the moderate, veteran Democratic women who flipped red House districts in 2018 (though unlike many of her peers, she lost her own race that year to the incumbent Republican). Booker is unabashedly progressive, in favor of Medicare-for-all, a Green New Deal, a universal basic income, and police reform. A third candidate, farmer and veteran Mike Broihier, is also running to McGrath’s left but hasn’t generated the same amount of buzz as Booker.

Amy McGrath is the Democratic Party-backed candidate to unseat Sen. Mitch McConnell.
Jason Davis/Getty Images
Kentucky state Rep. Charles Booker is challenging McGrath with a more progressive platform.
Bryan Woolston/AP

“Primaries are good for having the important conversations, but we’re not running to have important conversations, we’re running to win,” Booker told Vox in a recent interview. “We’re poised to shock the world and once we do, hopefully people stop ignoring regular folks.”

Booker’s ascent has happened alongside the widespread protests in his hometown of Louisville after the police killings of 26-year-old EMT Breonna Taylor on March 13 and 53-year-old restaurant owner David McAtee on June 1. He has garnered endorsements from progressive heavyweights including Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as well as the state’s two largest newspapers, prominent Kentucky sports radio host Matt Jones, and even McConnell’s 2014 Democratic opponent, former Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. Meanwhile, McGrath has the backing of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who told reporters on Wednesday that McGrath is “our candidate” and a “strong candidate.”

“It’s not the typical progressive wing of the party against the establishment,” said Sunrise Movement political director Evan Weber, an early Booker endorser. “What we’re seeing is Kentucky Democrats versus DC Democrats, if anything. People in most places in the country don’t like to be told by Washington, DC, how they should vote and who their candidate should be.”

But many political observers in the state are wondering if Booker’s rise is coming too late. He’s behind in internal campaign polls, and McGrath has fundraised an eye-popping $41 million since she entered the Senate race — more money than even McConnell has raked in. While McGrath has mainly been hammering McConnell on Kentucky’s airwaves, Booker recently went up with his first two ad buys.

“Booker is trying to catch lightning in a bottle,” said Kentucky Republican political consultant Tres Watson. “It’s his moment to seize. The problem is the pandemic takes away a lot of the tools that a candidate would normally rely on to win.”

Publicly, McGrath hasn’t traded many barbs with Booker; her campaign team has largely been focused on the general election race with McConnell, as has been the case since she launched her Senate bid with a cutting ad last year.

And even with Booker’s last-minute surge, Team McGrath is projecting confidence they have the race locked up.

“We’re the last people in American politics to complain about a primary because that’s how she won two years ago,” McGrath campaign manager Mark Nickolas told Vox. Booker has “taken an advantage of an opportunity to step up and make his voice heard, and I think good for him, but we’re going to win.”

This now hotly contested race is entering its final stretch. And no matter who wins the June 23 primary, actually beating McConnell and his millions in an extremely pro-Trump state will be an uphill battle.

How the Kentucky primary went from sleepy to competitive in a matter of weeks

Until a few weeks ago, it looked like Amy McGrath was the runaway favorite in a sleepy primary race. McGrath fit the mold of middle-of-the-road, pragmatic candidates backed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of Senate Democrats.

McGrath’s primary victory over Lexington Mayor Jim Gray in 2018 was an early sign of the key theme of the midterms that year: Moderate women candidates (many with military backgrounds) often overperformed the men they were competing against. Her campaign then — much like today’s — focused on health care, jobs, and veterans’ issues. But while many of McGrath’s fellow challengers flipped their Republican districts, she ultimately lost by 3 points.

McGrath was the candidate of the moment in 2018. The question is whether she’s the candidate of the moment in 2020, when the country has been rocked by Covid-19 and massive protests around police brutality. The past few months have laid bare longstanding racial inequalities in jobs, policing, and health care. And Louisville has been one of the epicenters, amid anger over police killings of two black people — EMT Breonna Taylor and barbecue restaurant owner David McAtee — in the past three months.

Booker’s rise is in many ways inseparable from the Kentucky protests, where he’s been an active figure. McGrath was criticized for not going to protests until she attended a June 8 vigil, and for saying on television she hadn’t yet gone because of family matters.

“This last couple of weeks which feels like a few months has been a very defining moment for our campaign,” Booker told Vox. People are “screaming out and crying out in real time for justice in what happened to Breonna Taylor and Mr. McAtee. I see my family crying; I’ve carried a lot of this trauma as well.”

Rev. Jesse Jackson delivers remarks during a vigil for Breonna Taylor on June 6 in Louisville, Kentucky.
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Booker, who grew up in Louisville’s West End, said the past few months and weeks show him there’s appetite for substantive policy change in Kentucky — and not just in its urban center. Even as McGrath’s campaign views him as too progressive to appeal to Kentucky’s rural coal country, Booker has also spent time there. He says many of the same systemic issues in the city exist in rural areas as well.

“People are rising up,” Booker said. “They’re looking at structural issues, they’re looking at the fact that poverty is generational and we criminalize poverty. We’re so used to folks talking about us and never listening to us. It’s going to surprise folks to know you can lean into issues that address poverty, issues that are progressive and build an incredible coalition of support.”

In Louisville, activists say there’s palpable frustration toward national Democrats for selecting McGrath as their candidate in February.

“They declared Amy McGrath the frontrunner and the nominee they were going to back ... without even taking the pulse of Kentucky,” said Darryl Young, who works with youth groups in Louisville and is a candidate for the Louisville Metro Council. “What you’re seeing now is Kentucky is like no, you can’t tell us who to pick.”

McGrath is still the frontrunner, but Booker’s sudden rise is making outside analysts give the primary race a serious second look.

“I think Charles Booker has real momentum, and he’s a candidate of the moment of the right now,” said Jessica Taylor, the Senate editor for the Cook Political Report. “And I think McGrath has made some real missteps in how she’s responded to these protests. Traditionally, you would think all her money would make her safe but we live in untraditional times.”

Charles Booker promoting a voting rights measure in Frankfort, Kentucky, on January 29.
Bruce Schreiner/AP
Amy McGrath speaks to supporters after conceding a loss in her House race during the 2018 midterms.
Bryan Woolston/AP

Internal polling from the campaigns shows McGrath with a double-digit lead a week out. And while McGrath allies are watching Booker’s ascent, they still feel confident they can pull off a win next Tuesday.

“Booker’s got a very strong lefty message, it’s the AOC message along with these racial justice components,” said a person close to the McGrath campaign. “This is still Kentucky, he’s running statewide. When you bring in Bernie and AOC, you’re lowering your ceiling.”

Even though some Kentucky voters have already cast their absentee ballots, Democrats in the state are watching to see whether Booker can pull off a come-from-behind win and be able to test his theory of running a progressive campaign against Mitch McConnell.

“My gut tells me there’s a big chunk of the Democratic electorate that’s still up for grabs,” said Kentucky Democratic strategist Matt Erwin, who is not affiliated with either the McGrath or Booker campaigns.

Putting Kentucky into play will be a challenge for Democrats

Even if McConnell’s Senate majority is looking ever more tenuous, the majority leader himself will incredibly tough to beat in the fall.

National and state Democrats see a glimmer of hope in Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s 2019 narrow win against former Gov. Matt Bevin, but they also recognize McConnell’s seat is a long shot even under the best of circumstances.

“McConnell is a ruthless campaigner,” Taylor said. The Cook Political Report rating for the Kentucky Senate race is Likely Republican.

McConnell has been a senator since 1985, and he’s risen through the chamber’s ranks to become the leader of Senate Republicans and now an incredibly powerful Senate majority leader. McConnell has become something of a boogeyman for Democrats, who despise him for moves like denying Obama’s Supreme Court pick Merrick Garland a hearing, or holding up the vast majority of House bills in the Senate to prioritize filling the federal judiciary with conservative judges.

But back home in Kentucky, McConnell has worked very hard to maintain an image that he’s delivering for his home state. He’s also tied himself closely to Trump, who won Kentucky by 30 points in 2016. While McConnell’s campaign team has spent much of their time hitting McGrath in ads, they say the majority leader is well positioned to win against either Democrat.

Mitch McConnell speaks to reporters on April 9, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

“The Democratic primary is pitting the self-described ‘furthest left’ person in Kentucky against Bernie Sanders’s hand-picked candidate,” McConnell campaign manager Kevin Golden told Vox in a statement. “And neither of those traits lend themselves to success in a Kentucky general election.”

It’s not that McConnell is particularly well-liked in his home state; in fact, he’s the second most unpopular senator in Morning Consult’s Senate approval rankings (Sen. Susan Collins of Maine holds the title for first).

“I think there’s a big chunk of people out there who view McConnell as, well he’s an a-hole, but he’s our a-hole,” Watson, the Republican strategist, told Vox.

When national Democrats approached McGrath about running against McConnell, the thinking was that if anyone could beat him, a woman Marine Corps veteran with 20 years of military service would be a good bet. One mid-May poll showed McGrath leading McConnell by 1 percent, but otherwise, there’s been a dearth of general election polling. Still, McGrath has proved a fundraising magnet, with a massive $41 million haul that tops McConnell’s fundraising.

McGrath has been the benefactor of Democratic donors who would like nothing more than to see McConnell gone; she’s gotten 96 percent of her donations from out-of-state donors, according to OpenSecrets.

“The leader knows he’s essentially a money sponge that’s going to help protect people like Cory Gardner, Susan Collins, and others,” Watson said. “No matter what the DSCC tells donors, they’re going to end up throwing money at it, because it’s Mitch McConnell.”

Raising money is one thing, but it will take a carefully executed strategy to actually beat McConnell in a state where Trump still enjoys a 17 percent net approval rating. Trump will almost certainly win Kentucky again in 2020, so the best Democrats can hope for is a split ticket scenario where pro-Trump voters don’t cast their ballot for McConnell. Democrats are also hoping they can replicate Beshear’s playbook of flipping some suburban areas around the blue centers of Louisville and Lexington that saw massive Democratic turnout in 2019.

Whoever wins the primary — McGrath, whose allies point to Beshear’s moderate politics to make the case that is the best path forward for a Democrat running for Senate in Kentucky; or Booker, who says McConnell can only ignore persistent inequalities for so long — will have to square off for a very tough fight in the fall.

“[McConnell] is a guy who is battle-tested and he leans into his bad narrative. He likes being the devil,” Nickolas said. “You have to rethink what a campaign is. You have to be willing to do things that are groundbreaking in politics.”

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