Over the course of a few weeks, the Democratic Senate primary in Kentucky went from a foregone conclusion to very competitive.
The primary contest between Democrats Amy McGrath and state Sen. Charles Booker — both vying to compete against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in the fall — is without a doubt the marquee race in Kentucky this summer.
McGrath is the moderate veteran who has become a fundraising juggernaut, despite narrowly losing a Kentucky House race in 2018. Booker, meanwhile, is the youngest black state lawmaker in Kentucky. He’s unapologetically progressive and has become a presence on the front lines of protests against police brutality in his hometown of Louisville. Whereas Booker was once seen as a long shot competitor to McGrath, his challenge has become more serious in the last few weeks.
“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.
While the Senate race will be the most closely watched race on Tuesday night, there are other primaries playing out for congressional districts around the state. Republicans are competing to be the nominee to try to take down longtime Rep. John Yarmuth (D), the only Democratic member of the Kentucky Congressional delegation and the powerful chairman of the House Committee on the Budget. Democrats and Republicans alike are competing to challenge embattled Rep. Thomas Massie (R), an outspoken member of the House Liberty Caucus, and there are also primaries in both parties for the Sixth Congressional District, currently held by Rep. Andy Barr (R).
Though the state has Democratic roots in its rural areas, it’s pretty solidly Republican and voted for Trump by 30 points in 2016. Democrats see some hope in the 2019 win of Gov. Andy Beshear (D) over Matt Bevin, who attempted to roll back Kentucky’s Medicaid expansion and used aggressive rhetoric against Kentucky teachers striking for better wages. Any plausible path for a Democratic Senate candidate would be massive turnout for Democrats in Kentucky’s blue cities and purplish suburbs, paired with lower turnout for McConnell in Kentucky’s redder rural areas. But the odds of Democrats actually toppling McConnell on his home turf are slim.
Kentucky US Senate race
Who is the Republican? Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in office since 1985. McConnell is currently the most powerful person in the US Senate and one of the most powerful in the country.
Who are the Democrats? Retired Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath, who narrowly lost the Sixth Congressional District in 2018, is the pick of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Her closest challenger is progressive state Sen. Charles Booker. Farmer and veteran Mike Broihier is also in the running, but he hasn’t gained as much attention as Booker.
What are the odds? Cook Political Report rates this race Likely Republican.
What’s the state of play? Until a few weeks ago, it looked like McGrath was the runaway favorite in a sleepy primary race. The retired fighter pilot fit the mold of middle-of-the-road, pragmatic candidates backed by the DSCC and was clearly in general election mode — hitting McConnell with ads. But Booker is also seeing a last-minute rise, fueled by the protests against police brutality after Louisville police killed EMT Breonna Taylor and restaurant owner David McAtee. McGrath is the frontrunner, but her path is suddenly looking less certain.
Whether McGrath or Booker emerge victorious, they’ll be facing off against the incredibly powerful and well-funded McConnell. McConnell has become 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 — ensuring the courts will likely favor conservative causes for a generation. 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. Beating McConnell will take lots of money, which McGrath is pulling in by the bucketloads. But even then, it’s far from a sure bet.
Kentucky’s Third Congressional District
Who is the Democrat? Chairman of the House Budget Committee John Yarmuth, in office since 2007.
Who are the Republicans? Entrepreneur Waymen Eddings, realtor Rhonda Palazzo, and former union representative Mike Craven.
What are the odds? Cook Political Report rates this district Solid Democratic.
What’s the state of play? Yarmuth has for years been the only Democratic House member from Kentucky. He represents a district that’s pretty safely blue owing to the influence of the state’s largest city Louisville. A longtime member of Congress, Yarmuth is now the chair of the House Budget Committee — an influential position. Yarmuth is running unopposed in his primary, and despite the three Republicans vying to challenge him, he’s expected to retain his grasp on the seat.
Kentucky’s Fourth Congressional District
Who are the Republicans? Incumbent Rep. Thomas Massie is facing a serious primary challenge from attorney Todd McMurtry. Massie could be in electoral trouble this year; President Donald Trump called for him to be tossed out of the GOP a few months ago.
Who are the Democrats? Nurse Alexandra Owensby and FedEx worker Shannon Fabert.
What are the odds? Cook Political Report rates this district Solid Republican.
What is the state of play? Massie has been a perennial thorn in the side of Democrats and Republicans alike for years. A libertarian-minded member of Congress, he often votes against big bills and government spending. But Massie may have crossed a line with Trump this year when he tried to hold up a $2.2 trillion coronavirus aid package by requesting a recorded vote, forcing lawmakers to come back to the Hill in the middle of a pandemic in the process. For that, Trump called him a “third rate grandstander” and “a disaster for America.”
Now, Massie is facing a challenge from McMurtry, who made news when he represented Covington Catholic high school student Nicholas Sandmann after Sandmann’s widely publicized encounter with a Native American activist at the Lincoln Memorial. The race between Massie and McMurtry has featured plenty of barbs thrown between the two, as well as the two men attempting to tie themselves to Trump.
Kentucky’s Sixth Congressional District
Who are the Republicans? Incumbent Andy Barr is being challenged by perennial candidate Geoff Young and retired entrepreneur Chuck Eddy.
Who are the Democrats? Marine corps veteran Josh Hicks and entrepreneur Daniel Kemph.
What are the odds? Cook Political Report rates this race Likely Republican.
What is the state of play? Democrats invested heavily in the Sixth Congressional District in 2018, when McGrath challenged Barr and fell three points shy of winning. The district is seen as potentially gettable because it contains the blue city of Lexington and its surrounding suburbs, and historically has swung from red to blue in the past. But it’s proved tough to flip in recent years.
Barr is likely to win his Republican primary. Barr suffered a personal tragedy on June 16 in the sudden death of his wife Carol due to a heart condition. On the Democratic side, Hicks — whose speech on taking down confederate monuments went viral in 2017 — will face off against Kemph. The campaign arm of House Democrats, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, hasn’t yet endorsed in this race.
Correction: An earlier version of this article said Rep. Thomas Massie is part of the House Freedom Caucus. He is part of the House Liberty Caucus.