High-stakes Kentucky Senate primary '1st test' of national unrest over race: 'Powerhouse Politics' podcast

The outcome for Kentucky's Senate Democratic primary isn't expected for a week.

June 24, 2020, 3:08 PM

In one of the most highly-anticipated contests of Tuesday night, Amy McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot and 2018 congressional candidate, currently holds a single-digit lead over her progressive challenger, state Rep. Charles Booker, 35, the youngest black state lawmaker in Kentucky, according to early returns.

The outcome for Kentucky's Senate Democratic primary isn't expected for a week. But the close contest is one that wasn't expected to be tight just one month ago. The race was upended in its closing weeks by the fallout from the recent police shootings and the national unrest over racial injustice and police brutality.

"What is so, I think, fascinating about this race is that just a couple of weeks ago, it seemed that this was settled," ABC News senior congressional correspondent Mary Bruce told the "Powerhouse Politics" podcast co-hosts ABC News chief White House correspondent and ABC News political director Rick Klein. "McGrath, it seemed, was a foregone conclusion. She had this massive fundraising power. She had been anointed essentially by the Democratic establishment. She's got Chuck Schumer out there speaking up on her behalf. The House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, is supporting her."

"And then everything changed...this push for racial equality and all of a sudden you have the underdog getting a lot of attention," she added.

In the hard-fought primary, only a small portion of results are currently in. Some counties are reporting no results, including in the two largest in the state, Jefferson and Fayette.

Voters line up as polls open on the day of the primary election in Louisville, Ky., June 23, 2020.
Bryan Woolston/Reuters

Booker, who is from Louisville, which sits in Jefferson County, is expected to see a large boost from the area once the vote is tallied by June 30. Due to the massive influx of absentee ballots, many counties are withholding even partial results until June 30, the extended deadline for all counties to report returns to the secretary of state.

On the eve of the election, Booker told Bruce that he is poised to deliver a shock to the political world, as his candidacy, he says, reflects the movement and momentum that swept him into contention for the nomination.

"We know that we can do the work to end poverty and to end injustice and to address the racial structural inequity that rob so many people have the chance of doing anything more, the struggle," he said. "And so we're fighting back and we're showing the country and the world what Kentucky is made of...and I'm fired up."

Amid the national reckoning on race, the fight for Booker is deeply personal.

"I carry a lot of trauma. I've had cousins murdered the last four years and my cousin T.J. was murdered on Easter Sunday 2016, was really good friends with Brianna Taylor. And it hurts. It hurts even right now. And I've used that pain...I'm standing with them even when I got hit with tear gas myself. And I think it's so the people of Kentucky that they can support me and my candidacy because they know I'm going to fight for it," he said.

If Booker, an upstart progressive, were to pull off a victory in Kentucky, it would be one of the biggest upsets from the June 23 primaries.

McGrath even acknowledged in the interview with Bruce that her rival's life experience and personal connection to the energy fueling the demonstrations across the country makes him a formidable opponent.

"His life experience. He has a voice for these things. And I think that that's an important voice. I do believe we need to come together as Democrats to defeat Mitch McConnell," she said.

In the weeks leading up to Tuesday, the race emerged as an electoral test of the impact of the movement - born out of the response to the recent deaths of African Americans at the hands of police, including Louisville's own Breonna Taylor - on what kind of candidate Democrats want to put forward to meet the moment. It's also a test for a candidate whose life story reflects much of the themes in the demonstrations.

"This really is this first test, right, of the political impact of this movement, of this kind of national moment that we are in," Bruce said on the podcast. "We still don't know the results...But even if she does end up winning this, I think it has been a real wakeup call to the impact of this this movement and also a wakeup call to the Democratic establishment that they may not have the power that they think to essentially anoint some of these candidates."

After her narrow loss to GOP Rep. Andy Barr in the 6th congressional district in 2018, McGrath entered the Senate race as the preferred candidate of the party establishment. She earned the backing of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee back in February and established her campaign as a fundraising behemoth after launching her Senate bid in July 2019, with more than $40 million in her war chest.

McGrath often invokes her outsider status to contrast herself with Booker, who she has said is part of the "political establishment."

"I've been boots on the ground for a year now, almost a year now, talking to my fellow Kentuckians about their frustrations and their concerns and talking about common sense solutions for the future. So we're excited to take this primary on," she told Bruce on Tuesday morning. "I'm not particularly a partisan person. I'm somebody that will work with anyone, no matter whether they wear red jersey or a blue jersey."

Booker often says that his chief opponent, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, was elected two weeks after he was born, and that throughout his life, he says the top Republican in Congress never served Kentuckians, who are "used to being ignored."

"Kentuckians are used to being ignored," he told Bruce in the interview. "We're used to being counted out. We're used to being written off. People talk about Kentucky. They talk at us. They tell us what we think. They tell us what we believe in. Never listen to us."

McGrath, meanwhile, has contended with criticism, particularly from Booker, who argues that she is more out of touch. McGrath, a moderate Democrat, pitches herself as a voice for Kentuckians who can go to Washington to get things done.

"I have been out listening to my fellow Kentuckians, I went to memorial services for George Floyd and Brianna Taylor in Central Park in Louisville," she said. "I know that people want to tackle social injustice in this country, the racial injustice...We got we got to fix this. The real inequities and opportunity, the real inequities in education. And that's why I want to go to Washington to be a voice to tackle some of these inequities and get it done."

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks during a news conference to announce that the Senate is considering police reform legislation, at the US Capitol on June 17, 2020, in Washington, DC.
Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

Regardless of who wins the contest, the boost in enthusiasm shows in early turnout figures.

An unofficial tally from in-person voting tops 161,000, and the total for mail-in ballots is projected to be about five times that, making up about 75% of the total votes cast. If turnout reaches 1.1 million, as the state's chief election official estimated on Tuesday, it would be a record-breaking total surpassing 2008's turnout.

But with the race remaining in limbo for days, officials and voters are beginning to adjust to a reality in which election night lasts longer than a single night - and it's one that could have broader implications for November.

"This is the new normal," Klein said on Wednesday. "Election Day is not going to provide the winner of the presidency unless it's a landslide."

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