The Kentucky Democratic Senate primary to go up against Mitch McConnell was all about former fighter pilot Amy McGrath, who made a solid run at knocking off Andy Barr in Lexington in a 51-48% loss in 2018 and has spent the last 18 months girding up for taking on the Turtle. McGrath has acted all along like she had already won the primary and has a considerable war chest to prove it.
I say was because the primary, just ten days away now, is about to get competitive here in the home stretch.
Amy McGrath is a national Democratic icon for her bid to take out Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader and reviled figure on the left, raising tens of millions of dollars to fuel her campaign.
But McConnell isn't the opponent McGrath, a former fight pilot, is sweating most right now. Instead, it's her rival in the June 23 Democratic primary: Charles Booker, a state lawmaker who was virtually ignored for months but now has all the momentum in the closing days of the election.
Booker has been endorsed by Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Kentucky’s two largest newspapers. And the recent protests over racial injustice and police misconduct in Louisville, Booker's hometown, has shined a spotlight on a candidate who otherwise might have been left in the wake of McGrath's television ad blitz.
McGrath is the favorite of the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm and many sitting senators, and it’s hard to imagine she could lose a primary in which she’s outspent her opponents combined by a nearly 30-1 margin through early June. But there are signs it's turning into a real race: Booker is panning McGrath as a bland national Democrat who is predictably tacking to the center, while McGrath is biting back at Booker, accusing him of talking a big game on health care and voting rights but not backing it up.
"I don't really know what position Amy McGrath takes because she goes back and forth on everything depending on what consultants seem to say,” Booker said in an interview. “I know that Kentuckians can smell BS from miles away.”
“I’m not, as Mr. Booker claims, 'a pro-Trump Democrat.' I’m pro-Kentucky and pro-America,” McGrath said, refuting her top opponent in a POLITICO interview after months of keeping her fire trained on McConnell.
McGrath's position as McConnell's leading challenger and the then-viral advertising for her failed 2018 House bid have made her a darling of Democratic small donors. As of early June, she had a staggering $19 million in cash on hand, more than McConnell's 2014 opponent, then-Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, spent for the entire election — and that's after already running more than $8 million in TV ads.
She's not just using that spending advantage to pummel voters with advertising. She's also touting her campaign’s high wages, generous health care and efforts to inform people about changes to voting amid the pandemic — contrasting herself with Booker and underdog Mike Broihier.
“It’s really disappointing that I’m the only candidate in the Democratic primary that has the integrity to lead on these issues within their own campaigns," she said.
But beneath her powerhouse fundraising, there are signs of struggles. McGrath had a bumpy rollout last year, saying in one of her first interviews that she would have supported Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination, only to reverse herself later that day. More recently, Republican governors and Cindy McCain, the late Sen. John McCain’s widow, condemned ads of hers using their images to attack McConnell.
And McGrath has few substantial in-state endorsements, while Booker has been endorsed by prominent Kentucky media and close to two-dozen elected officials.
“There's not a lot of enthusiasm for Amy among Democrats. Charles’ supporters are very enthusiastic,” said one prominent Kentucky Democrat, who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
Booker has taken the lead on Black Lives Matter issues in the state after the murder of Breonna Taylor at the hands of the LMPD while McGrath has been concentrating on McConnell, and the ground has absolutely shifted under her feet in the last three weeks.
The real question is who has the best shot at dethroning Mitch McConnell, when both of them are long shots at best?
My brain says McGrath can keep it close, but Booker would be an amazing shift. I just don't think he can beat Mitch.