Kentuckians on Tuesday will weigh in on the suddenly competitive race among Democrats vying to take on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Former Marine Corps fighter pilot Amy McGrath was the clear favorite in the race early on, having raised millions of dollars with the help of establishment Democratic leaders.
But Charles Booker, a 35-year-old Black state representative, has made a late surge after participating in protests over racial violence that erupted in his hometown of Louisville. He’s earning endorsements from national progressive leaders such as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Results of the race won’t be known for several days, as election officials count mail-in ballots. Officials expanded mail-in voting to all eligible voters in an effort to reduce crowds during the coronavirus pandemic.
Most of the state’s 120 counties will have only one polling place, prompting some national figures to raise concerns about voter suppression, though local election officials and experts say that the large, centralized polling locations will be able to handle turnout.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., courted McGrath to run against McConnell shortly after she lost a close race for a House seat in 2018, paving the way for her to raise an eye-popping $41 million so far in the campaign.
She has impressive credentials — she was the first woman to fly in an F/A-18 fighter jet in combat, worked in Congress and at the Defense Department as a foreign affairs adviser and taught at the Naval Academy.
To top off the storybook résumé, when she was 13 years old, she wrote McConnell a letter asking him to help undo the ban on women serving in military combat roles. The event became the subject of her campaign launch video last summer. “He never wrote back,” she said.
McGrath might have easily coasted through the 10-way Democratic primary election, if not for Booker’s late surge.
Protesters in Kentucky and across the U.S. have been outraged by the death of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency room worker from Louisville who was shot to death by police serving a no-knock warrant at her apartment in March.
And Booker has been speaking about issues of racism and police violence for a long time.
“If you’re from certain parts of this state, if you look like I do for instance, you can be seen as a deadly weapon before a human being. And so we’ve got to address that,” Booker said in an interview this month, echoing a line he frequently delivered in the legislature.
Since the protests began, a flood of endorsements has rolled in for Booker from local Democrats and national progressive figures such as Sanders, Warren and Ocasio-Cortez.
And the attention has helped him raise $2.4 million since the beginning of June, about three times the amount he had raised during the entire race. Booker has also been buoyed by liberal Democratic voters who think McGrath is too moderate.
During her campaign launch last summer, McGrath said in an interview that she would have voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, then retracted the statement hours later.
And her opponents have painted her as being too soft on President Trump. She has accused McConnell of getting in the way of the president’s agenda.
“The things that Kentuckians voted for Trump for are not being done — he’s not able to get it done because of Senator McConnell,” McGrath said on MSNBC last summer.
In response, McGrath has said her words are being twisted.
“Wouldn’t you want that in a candidate?” McGrath said in a recent online candidate forum. “And I said specifically with regards to prescription drug prices that this current president has said was important to him. Wow, it’s important to me too.”
In many ways, McGrath is running how Democrats in Kentucky have run statewide campaigns for years.
Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear managed to avoid weighing in on the president too much during his successful campaign last year.
McConnell’s opponent in 2014, Alison Lundergan Grimes, refused to even say if she voted for President Barack Obama.
Al Cross, a longtime Kentucky political journalist and director of the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, says Booker will have to convince Democratic voters in the state that lean conservative, but he has a chance.
“This is a fairly conservative state. This is a state that is only 10% people of color. But you can’t deny the energy of the moment from which Charles Booker is drawing,” Cross said.
Strategists from both parties say Democrats’ chances of winning control of the Senate are getting better this year, but McConnell’s seat isn’t one they’re counting to take the majority.
Still, his role as majority leader guarantees that the race will continue to get national attention.
Recent polls show McConnell with a low approval rating in the state, but they did in 2014 too and he won reelection by more than 15 points.