The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Democratic battle to unseat Mitch McConnell in Kentucky is getting complicated

Amy McGrath, an ex-Marine fighter pilot, has been leading the Democratic primary to unseat Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. But the race got complicated at the last minute. (Bryan Woolston/AP)

Unseating Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) this November has always been a long shot for Democrats.

But if they were going to make it competitive, many national Democrats thought it could be with Amy McGrath, a former Marine Corps fighter pilot who has raised tens of millions of dollars, even outraising McConnell at times. In 2018 she came within three points of winning a conservative congressional seat in Kentucky. The dynamics in this state still heavily favor McConnell, but McGrath is at least more than a token Democratic challenger. Senate Democrats’ campaign arm endorsed her.

“Amy McGrath is our candidate; she’s a strong candidate,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said this week.

But now some members of the Kentucky political establishment and liberal national Democrats are rethinking that strategy in the final days of the campaign. They’ve endorsed one of McGrath’s opponents to her left, first-term state Rep. Charles Booker. The high-profile endorsements are complicating Democrats’ primary on Tuesday and raising questions about what the party thinks is the best path to defeat McConnell in November.

Booker’s rise to national attention has been swift. Since last week, he’s received endorsements from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.); Alison Lundergan Grimes, the previous Democratic nominee to challenge McConnell; and Greg Stumbo, the former state House speaker and former attorney general.

Coinciding with these endorsements have been protests against police brutality and racial injustice, which a Democratic strategist who spoke to The Fix said Booker handled particularly well. The issue is a raw one in Kentucky. Louisville, Booker’s hometown, has been the site of two recent police killings, including of Breonna Taylor in her home, and beloved barbecue owner David McAtee.

Booker, who is black, attended some of the protests and regularly addressed protesters. “I stand before you as a brother, as a cousin, as a neighbor, as a fellow good troublemaker,” he said.

His frequent presence earned a look at him from local news, asking: “Is this Charles Booker’s moment?”

“I’ve had cousins murdered the last four years,” Booker told Louisville’s WHAS 11, a mask slung around his neck. “I’ve had to ration my insult. I’ve seen people who have been traumatized by their doors being kicked in and their loved ones being taken away. Breonna Taylor was close friends with my family. So this is personal for me.”

Contrast that with McGrath, who said in a debate that she didn’t go to the protests because she was home dealing with family issues.

“Booker stepped up and met a moment,” said Mark Riddle, a Democratic political strategist in Kentucky. “I think people right now are looking for leadership, and he definitely struck a nerve with a lot of folks in Kentucky.” Riddle said that, at the very least, this is the most exciting late turn in a Democratic primary in Kentucky in recent years. (There’s another candidate also running to McGrath’s left, Mike Broihier.)

McGrath is also trailed by a misstep earlier in the campaign, when she said she probably would have voted for Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh — then reversed it the same day after backlash.

Is all this happening too late in the race to give Booker a chance to take advantage of it? He’s started raising more money as a result of the national endorsements. But voting by mail has already started in Kentucky. And McGrath has raised so much money that she’s been able to be on TV for the past year introducing herself to voters and attacking McConnell. Booker is just now getting on TV.

McGrath’s campaign says she’s spent significant time this past year traveling the state, talking to rural Kentucky voters who will be key to winning the primary and the Senate seat. And they’re getting signals that voters in coal country, fed up with struggling economically, could be open to voting for someone other than McConnell — or at least not show up to vote for him, which would help Democrats, too.

Implicit in that defense of McGrath is this question: Could Booker, who lives in Louisville and supports liberal policies such as Medicare-for-all and universal basic income, win over these voters in a general election? Kentucky is a conservative state. It voted for Trump by 30 points in 2016, which was one of his strongest performances anywhere. And while it’s not shaping up to be that big of a blowout for him in 2020, Trump could still win the state by double digits.

Whoever wins the Democratic primary will have to contend with pro-Trump voters and go against a master campaigner in McConnell. He is running for his seventh term. He has a knack for pulling ahead at the end of seemingly close races. (He beat Lundergan Grimes by more than 15 points in his last reelection in 2014.) He’ll also ostensibly have all the resources of the Republican establishment. Even as Republicans battle for Senate seats in much more competitive states, a super PAC tied to McConnell has reserved nearly $11 million to spend on him in the state.

But Democrats in Kentucky have won a competitive statewide race as recently as last year. Gov. Andy Beshear (D) unseated the unpopular former Republican governor, Matt Bevin. Could McConnell — whom national Democrats have made into a boogeyman — be just as unpopular and vulnerable in his own state?

The conventional political wisdom would seem to indicate that sending a more liberal candidate against McConnell could hurt their chances to beat him in this state. But that’s not the way Booker’s growing supporters in Kentucky see it, and it’s why he’s getting so much attention at the very end of this race.

“People ask: Can a young African American win statewide in Kentucky with a more liberal leaning?” Riddle said. “But we’ve also run a series of good candidates with good profiles, who checked all the boxes, and they lost. So I think Democrats think: ‘Hmm, maybe we’ll try this.’”