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Amy McGrath just won her unexpectedly close Kentucky Senate primary

McGrath will face off against Mitch McConnell in November.

Amy McGrath on November 6, 2018.
Amy McGrath just won her 2020 Senate primary and will face Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in November.
Jason Davis/Getty Images

Retired Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath will face off against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell this fall, after winning a closer-than-expected primary against progressive challenger Charles Booker.

The primary proved to be a nail-biter up until the very end, with Booker and McGrath each pulling ahead at various stages of vote-counting. Booker dominated in Jefferson County, his home area around Louisville and a key area for Democrats. But ultimately, a weaker margin outside of Lexington wasn’t enough to make up McGrath’s showing in rural areas outside the two cities.

Despite election day in Kentucky being held on June 23, a crush of absentee ballots made it impossible to know statewide results until a full week later. Vox’s partner Decision Desk called the race on June 30, around 11:15 am. The week of delays could serve as a preview for the November general election, if it is close.

The Kentucky Senate race was one of the few June 23 primaries where a young progressive Black candidate didn’t surge to victory. Black candidates won a slew of victories in competitive House primaries in New York and Virginia on election night. But Booker still came much closer than most political experts inside and outside the state would have believed a year ago — or even a few months ago.

McGrath is the moderate Democratic Party-backed candidate and a fundraising juggernaut. Even if the national party thinks she’s the best to take on McConnell, she’s still the underdog in a long-shot race. McConnell is arguably the most powerful man in Congress and a Kentucky political institution who has been in office since 1985. His political shrewdness helped him rise through the chamber’s ranks to become the leader of Senate Republicans and now Senate majority leader.

McConnell is something of a boogeyman for Democrats, who despise him for moves like denying President 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 200 conservative judges — thereby reshaping the courts for a generation.

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. (Though she lost her bid to flip a red Kentucky district in 2018.) One mid-May poll showed McGrath leading McConnell by 1 percent, but otherwise, general election polling has been scarce.

Despite spending most of her primary laser-focused on McConnell, McGrath got a serious primary challenger in Booker, the youngest Black lawmaker in Kentucky. Booker’s campaign started out with little notice but burst ahead suddenly as protests around police brutality engulfed Louisville, Kentucky’s largest city. McGrath was criticized for not showing up to protests until she attended a vigil on June 8. But ultimately, Booker’s late surge wasn’t enough to overcome McGrath’s head start in name recognition and fundraising. Booker’s campaign surge also started after some Kentucky voters had cast absentee ballots, although it’s difficult to know how much of an impact that could have had on the outcome.

Perhaps benefiting from Democrats’ distaste for McConnell, McGrath has been raking in fundraising cash. She’s raised over $40 million since entering the race, more than the Republican incumbent has raised. McGrath has been the benefactor of Democratic donors who would like nothing more than to see McConnell gone; 96 percent of her donations are from out-of-state donors, according to OpenSecrets.

McGrath will need that money to take on McConnell, but it also will take a carefully executed strategy to actually beat him in a state that Donald Trump won by 30 points in 2016 and where he still enjoys a 17 percent net approval rating. Trump will almost certainly win Kentucky 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 Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s 2019 playbook of flipping some suburban areas around the blue centers of Louisville and Lexington that saw massive Democratic turnout.

McGrath campaign manager Mark Nickolas recently told Vox the campaign is ready to play McConnell’s game in the general election.

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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