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Kentucky Primary: Amy McGrath survives scare, wins Democratic U.S. Senate nod

Results finally in after week of counting avalanche of absentee ballots

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

LOUISVILLE (CFP) — Amy McGrath has survived a scare in Kentucky’s Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, narrowly defeating State Rep. Charles Booker after absentee ballots were counted.

Final results showed McGrath with 45% to 43% for Booker, whose scrappy campaign surged from behind in the closing weeks of the race to nearly inflict an embarrassing defeat on the chosen candidate of the Democratic establishment in Washington.

U.S. Senate nominee Amy McGrath, D-Kentucky

McGrath, 45, a former Marine fighter pilot who narrowly lost a race for the U.S. House in 2018, will now take on Kentucky’s most formidable political figure, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is seeking a seventh term in November.

Reporting of final results was delayed for a week while elections officials counted hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots cast in a primary that had been postponed for nearly two months because of the coronavirus crisis.

Kentucky does not have primary runoffs, so McGrath won with a plurality.

Booker held a narrow lead in the in-person vote and beat McGrath by more than 20 points in Jefferson County, which includes Louisville. But she did better in the absentee vote and carried most of the rest of the state.

McGrath has raised more than $40 million and has the backing of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. She spent $20 million in the Senate primary, almost all of it on ads that focused on McConnell, rather than her primary opponents.

But Booker, 35, in only his first term in the legislature, came from behind by criticizing McGrath as a “pro-Trump Democrat” unable to motivate the party’s grassroots.

He got the backing of luminaries on the Democratic left such as U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, as well as snagging endorsements from state’s two largest newspapers, the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Lexington Herald-Leader.

One factor in the race was the effect of protests over police violence that have roiled Louisville, home to the state’s largest pool of Democratic voters, in the wake of the death of Breonna Taylor, an African-American woman who was mistakenly shot in her home by police executing a no-knock warrant.

In the race’s closing days, Booker went up with ads criticizing McGrath for not participating in the protests, which included a awkward clip from a recent debate in which McGrath said she wasn’t involved because she “had some family things going on.” By contrast, Booker was shown addressing the protest crowd will a bullhorn.

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Cliffhanger in the Bluegrass: Charles Booker poised for upset in U.S. Senate Democratic primary

As absentee ballot count continues, Booker takes the lead over establishment favorite Amy McGrath

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

(CFP) — State Rep. Charles Booker has taken the lead in the Democratic race for U.S. Senate in Kentucky, setting the stage for one of the year’s biggest political upsets that will upend the best-laid plans by the party establishment to take out Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

With the absentee ballot count continuing, Booker took a 2,500 vote lead over former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath as the first batch of votes began trickling in from Jefferson County, which includes Louisville.

While absentee ballots are still being counted across the commonwealth, the bulk of the outstanding vote was from Jefferson and Fayette County, which includes Lexington. In Jefferson, where Booker lives, he was carrying 80% of the vote; he was carrying 72% in Fayette.

A loss by McGrath — who has raised $40 million and has the backing of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — would be a embarrassing upset at the hands of Booker, a 35-year-old first-term lawmaker whose scrappy campaign surged from behind in the closing weeks of the race with the support of grassroots groups on the Democratic left.

It would also jumble the fall race in which establishment Democrats saw McGrath as their best chance to unseat McConnell, who carried 87% in his primary Tuesday against seven challengers.

In the only other contested federal race in Kentucky, Republican U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie easily turned back a challenge from Covington attorney Todd McMurtry in the 4th District in the Cincinnati suburbs, despite his sometimes rocky relationship with President Donald Trump.

Due to coronavirus concerns, absentee balloting was expanded statewide, with more than 800,000 ballots mailed out. Election officials in Jefferson and Fayette counties have said it could take until June 30 for final results to be released.

Booker went to court to extend the poll closing time in Jefferson County, where all voters countywide voted at a single polling place at the Kentucky Exposition Center. In Fayette County, everyone voted at the University of Kentucky’s football stadium.

Amy McGrath and Charles Booker

In 2018, McGrath, 45, rode a wave from a viral announcement video  to become a national fundraising sensation in a U.S. House race in central Kentucky, which she narrowly lost.

She spent $20 million in the Senate primary, almost all of it on ads that focused on McConnell, rather than her primary opponents.

Booker criticized McGrath as a “pro-Trump Democrat” unable to motivate the Democratic grassroots. He had the backing of U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker; two members of “The Squad” in the U.S. House, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts; and a number of self-described “progressive” activist groups.

However, Booker also got the backing of the state’s two largest newspapers, the Louisville Courier-Journal, which called him a “change agent”, and the Lexington Herald-Leader, which urged voters to choose “passion over pragmatism.”And he received the endorsements of former Secretary State Allison Lundergan Grimes, who lost to McConnell in 2018, and former Attorney General Greg Stumbo.

The state’s two most prominent elected Democrats — Governor Andy Beshear and U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth — did not endorse either candidate.

One factor in the race was the effect of protests over police violence that have roiled Louisville, home to the state’s largest pool of Democratic voters, in the wake of the death of Breonna Taylor, an African-American woman who was mistakenly shot in her home by police executing a no-knock warrant.

In the race’s closing days, Booker went up with ads criticizing McGrath for not participating in the protests, which included a awkward clip from a recent debate in which McGrath said she wasn’t involved because she “had some family things going on.” By contrast, Booker is shown addressing the protest crowd will a bullhorn.

The McGrath campaign has responded with ads that, while not attacking Booker directly, touted her as the only Democrat who can possibly beat McConnell, a formidable campaigner who has been in the Senate since 1985 and is seeking his seventh term.

Kentucky does not have primary runoff, which means that the candidate with the most votes when the smoke finally clears will be the nominee.

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Primaries Tuesday in Kentucky, Virginia; U.S. House runoff in Western North Carolina

Kentucky U.S. Senate Democratic primary pits establishment pick Amy McGrath against surging Charles Booker

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

(CFP) — Democrats in Kentucky will decide a surprisingly competitive U.S. Senate primary with upset potential Tuesday, while Republicans in Western North Carolina will decide who will be their nominee to replace Mark Meadows, who left Congress to become President Donald Trump’s White House chief-of-staff.

Meanwhile, in Virginia, Democrats in the 5th U.S. House District will pick their candidate in a race that became more of a pickup opportunity when incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Denver Riggleman went down to defeat in a party convention earlier this month, while Republicans in the 2nd District will select a nominee to face freshman Democratic U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria in the fall from a field that includes the man Luria beat in 2018, Scott Taylor.

Virginia Republicans will also decide who gets the decidedly uphill task of opposing Democratic U.S. Senator Mark Warner in November.

Polls in Kentucky are open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. in both Eastern and Central time zones; in North Carolina from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m; and in Virginia from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Amy McGrath and Charles Booker compete in Kentucky U.S. Senate primary

Kentucky: The marquee race in the Bluegrass is a Democratic U.S Senate battle between former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath from Georgetown and State Rep. Charles Booker from Louisville, whose campaign caught fire in the closing weeks, setting the stage for what could become one of the biggest upsets of the 2020 political season. Eight other Democrats are also in the race.

The winner will face Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who faces seven little-known challengers in the GOP primary.

McGrath, who lost a close U.S. House race in central Kentucky in 2018, has the backing of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, plus endorsements from seven former presidential candidates, including Pete Buttigieg. She has raised more than $40 million and spent $20 million in the primary, much of it on ads that focused on McConnell, rather than her primary opponents.

But Booker — who has criticized McGrath as a “pro-Trump Democrat” unable to motivate the Democratic grassroots — has the backing of U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker; two members of “The Squad” in the U.S. House, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts; a number of activist groups on the Democratic left; and the state’s two largest newspapers, the Louisville Courier-Journal, which called him a “change agent”, and the Lexington Herald-Leader, which urged voters to choose “passion over pragmatism.”

Closer to home, Booker received the endorsements of former Secretary State Allison Lundergan Grimes, who lost to McConnell in 2018, and former Attorney General Greg Stumbo. However, the state’s two most prominent elected Democrats — Governor Andy Beshear and U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth — have not endorsed either candidate, although Yarmuth’s son, who owns a newspaper in Louisville, is backing Booker.

One factor in the race will be the effect of protests over police violence that have roiled Louisville, home to the state’s largest pool of Democratic voters, in the wake of the death of Breonna Taylor, an African-American woman who was mistakenly shot in her home by police executing a no-knock warrant.

In the race’s closing days, Booker has gone up with ads criticizing McGrath for not participating in the protests, which included a awkward clip from a recent debate in which McGrath said she wasn’t involved because she “had some family things going on.” By contrast, Booker is shown addressing the protest crowd will a bullhorn.

The McGrath campaign has responded with ads that, while not attacking Booker directly, tout her as the only Democrat who can possibly beat McConnell, a formidable campaigner who has been in the Senate since 1985 and is seeking his seventh term.

Kentucky does not have primary runoff, which means that the candidate with the most votes Tuesday will be the nominee.

North Carolina: In the 11th U.S. House District, which takes in 17 mostly rural counties in the state’s western panhandle, Republicans will choose between Lynda Bennett, a Maggie Valley real estate agent and chair of the Haywood County Republican Party, and Madison Cawthorn, a 24-year-old real estate investor and motivational speaker from Hendersonville whose campaign has featured his life story as the survivor of a near-fatal car crash that left him in a wheelchair.

In December, Meadows announced he would not seek re-election just 30 hours before the filing deadline closed, and Bennett, a friend of Meadows and his wife, Debbie, jumped into the race. The chain of events rankled some Republicans in the district, who accused Meadows of trying to engineer Bennett’s election as his successor; both Meadows and Bennett have denied any coordination, although Meadows later endorsed her.

Meadows was later picked by Trump to head his White House staff, and Trump endorsed Bennett in early June.

In the first round of voting in March, Bennett received 24% of the vote to Cawthorn’s 20%. Four of the candidates who lost in the first round have subsequently endorsed Cawthorn.

The winner of the GOP primary will be a heavy favorite in November in the heavily Republican district against the Democratic nominee, Moe Davis, an Asheville attorney and former chief prosecutor in terrorism trials at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba.

Virginia: In the 5th District — which stretches through central Virginia from the Washington D.C. suburbs to the North Carolina border — four Democrats are competing in Tuesday’s primary, including Rappahannock County Supervisor John Lesinski; Claire Russo, a former Marine intelligence officer and fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations; RD Huffstetler, a Marine veteran and technology executive; and Cameron Webb, a Charlottesville physician and former Obama White House aide.

Virginia does not hold primary runoffs, so the top vote-getter in the primary will advance.

Republicans in the district held a convention on June 14 to pick their nominee, ousting Riggleman in favor of Campbell County Supervisor Bob Good, a former athletics official at Liberty University who was recruited to run for the position by conservative activists unhappy with the congressman’s participation in a same-sex wedding.

Good’s win over Riggleman has buoyed Democrats’ hopes of flipping the district in November, although it does lean Republican.

In the 2nd District in the Hampton Roads area, Taylor, who won the seat in 2016 but couldn’t hold hit in 2018 against Luria, is running against two other Republicans, Ben Loyola, a Cuban immigrant and defense contractor from Virginia Beach, and Jarome Bell, a retired Navy chief petty officer and football coach from Virginia Beach.

Luria is one of the top Republican targets in November, along with Abigail Spanberger, who flipped the 7th District seat near Richmond in 2018. Republicans in that district will pick their nominee from among eight contenders in a convention on July 18, rather than in Tuesday’s primary.

State law in Virginia allows parties to opt for a convention instead of a primary.

In the U.S. Senate primary, Republicans will select a nominee to face Warner from among Alissa Baldwin, a public school teacher from Victoria; Daniel Gade, a retired Army officer from Alexandria and professor at American University; and Tom Speciale, an Army reservist from Woodbridge who owns a firearm safety training company.

Warner, a former governor who is seeking his third term, is considered a prohibitive favorite in the race. Virginia hasn’t elected a Republican to the Senate since 2002, although Warner only won by 17,000 votes the last time he ran in 2014.

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Insight: What do 2019’s election results in the South tell us about 2020?

Wins in Kentucky and Louisiana aren’t nirvana for Democrats, but they do show limits to GOP strategy of socialist pigeonholing

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

Now that the dust has cleared from elections in four Southern states earlier this month, what are the lessons, if any, for 2020 elections in which both the presidency and control of Congress will be on the line?

Some pundits in the chattering class and Democratic politicians have looked at victories by Democrats in governor’s races in deep red Kentucky and Louisiana and gleefully found evil portends for their GOP rivals next year.

That would be overreach.

Editor Rich Shumate

In Kentucky, Democrat Andy Beshear won because the Republican incumbent, Matt Bevin, was as popular as a skin rash after four years of gratuitous insults and irritation. In Louisiana, Democratic incumbent John Bel Edwards — that rarest of creatures, a pro-life Democrat — had strong job approval numbers and ran as far away as he could from the Elizabeth Warrens and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezes in his party.

Trump couldn’t push Republicans over the finish line in either race, but Republicans carried all of the other statewide contests in both states and had a clean sweep in of state offices in Mississippi. So it would be a mistake to see these Democratic wins as a referendum on Trump, and Democrats shouldn’t find much solace in what was otherwise a rather dismal showing.

Still, the wins by Beshear and Edwards showed that the Republican strategy of calling Democrats socialists and ginning up the faithful with Trump rallies has its limits, even in states that the president carried by more than 20 points. In states with more even strength between the parties — Florida, Georgia, Texas, and North Carolina — that strategy could be even less effective next year, particularly at the presidential level and in U.S. Senate races in the latter three states.

What should be of more concern to Republicans is the fact that the Democratic vote in cities and suburban areas was unusually strong and decidedly Democratic in 2019, mirroring a trend seen in 2018 when Democrats took control of the U.S. House.

Beshear won in Kentucky by carrying Louisville and Lexington and their suburbs by a margin of 135,000 votes, swamping Republican margins in the rest of the state. In Louisiana, Edwards won by carrying Baton Rouge, Shreveport and New Orleans by almost 165,000 votes, including winning almost 90 percent of the vote in Orleans Parish and carrying suburban Jefferson Parish — home of House GOP Whip Steve Scalise — by 14 points.

The news for Republicans was even worse in Virginia, where Democrats took control of both houses of the legislature — in elections that used maps drawn by Republicans to protect Republicans — by gaining more ground in the suburbs around Washington, Richmond, and Norfolk. Among the casualties was the last Republican House member representing a district in the inner Washington suburbs, which 20 years ago was undisputed GOP territory.

In 2018, newfound Democratic strength in the suburbs allowed the party to take competitive U.S. House seats in Atlanta, Richmond, Miami, Dallas and Houston — and get surprise wins in Oklahoma City and Charleston. If that trend, also seen in 2019, continues into 2020, it could potentially put more seats into play in Little Rock, Tampa, Lexington, San Antonio and across North Carolina, where a court recently forced Republican legislators to redraw gerrymandered maps.

Over in the Senate, Republicans are defending two seats in Georgia and seats in Texas and North Carolina where Democrats now have a plausible path to victory, if they can push the urban/suburban vote past the pro-Trump margin in small towns and rural areas as they did in 2019. And the eyes of the nation will be on Kentucky, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will be defending his seat in the wake of Beshear’s breakthrough.

McConnell’s job approval numbers are 13 points underwater in Kentucky, according to the latest Morning Consult survey, making him one of the nation’s least popular senators. However, McConnell has substantially more political acumen than Bevin and a much better political machine, and he could benefit if he faces a Democrat whom he can pigeonhole as a leftist.

McConnell’s campaign is already taking aim at his only announced Democratic rival, Amy McGrath, who raised $8.6 million in an unsuccessful congressional race in 2018 but started the campaign with an embarrassing flip-flop on whether she would have voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. (First she said yes, then she said no.)

Rocky Adkins, a folksy, pro-life state legislator from Eastern Kentucky who ran second to Beshear in this year’s gubernatorial primary, is also considering entering the race and could prove a much more slippery target for McConnell’s ad makers.

Democrats need a net gain of four seats to take control of the Senate; three seats will be enough if a Democrat also carries the White House. That task will be very uphill if they don’t make breakthroughs in the South.

In the presidential race, the question will be if any the Democrats in the 2020 field can survive in the South in a binary match-up against Trump and his faithful followers.

Virginia is probably a lock for the Democrats, and Florida and North Carolina are always in play. The wild cards will be Georgia and Texas, where the heavy urban-suburban Democratic vote seen in 2018 and 2019 could make things interesting if it materializes again in 2020. (Trump carried Georgia by just 5 points in 2016; the margin was 9 points in Texas.)

However, it should be noted that if either Beshear or Edwards were in the presidential race, they would be far and away the most conservative candidate in the Democratic field. So could a presidential candidate who is highly likely to be substantially to their left duplicate the success they had locally in 2019, particularly in states where the president remains more popular than he does nationally?

Mmmm … don’t bet the rent.

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Democrats taunt Mitch McConnell with Russia signs, chants at Kentucky political picnic

Crowd chants “Moscow Mitch” and waves Russian flags at Fancy Farm event

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

FANCY FARM, Kentucky (CFP) — In a sign that the derisive nickname recently attached to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may be taking hold in the political zeitgeist, a boisterous crowd of Democrats greeted him with chants of “Moscow Mitch” and waved Russian flags Saturday during his appearance at Kentucky’s famous Fancy Farm political picnic.

Robert Kellums lampoons Mitch McConnell at Fancy Farm picnic

Kentucky Democrats, who have been raising money by selling Russian-themed merchandise targeting the Senate leader, kept up the pressure at Saturday’s picnic, attended by a who’s who of Bluegrass politics, with shirts and signs connecting McConnell to Russia in the wake of his decision to derail election security bills in the Senate.

A popular poster on the picnic grounds showed McConnell in a Russian military uniform, above the tagline “Spread the Red, Comrade.” One woman was even sporting a Russian fur hat in the 90-degree heat.

Note: Video of McConnell’s remarks at Fancy Farm follows this story.

“That’s a rookie mistake from someone who’s not a rookie,” said Robert Kellems from Hancock County, who posed for photographs with a cartoon he was carrying showing McConnell as a turtle with an onion-dome shell. Kellems also noted the turnabout at play, pointing out that “the president seems to think name calling is OK.”

McConnell — who earlier in the week had pushed back against the “Moscow Mitch” gibe as “McCarthyism” — did not address the controversy in his remarks to the picnic, as the Democrats on hand booed and chanted throughout. He did gesture toward the protestors when he noted that “Washington liberals” angry with his role in pushing through Trump’s Supreme Court picks “responded by targeting me.”

Noting that he is the only top leader in Congress not from New York or California, McConnell told the crowd, “I’m the guy who sticks up for middle America and for Kentucky.”

“[Democrats] want to turn America into a socialist country. Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell are never going to let that happen,” he said. “That’s why I call myself the Grim Reaper — I’m killing their socialist agenda.”

McConnell also took a shot at his most high-profile Democratic opponent in his 2020 re-election race, referring to Amy McGrath as “Amy McGaffe” over her recent rocky campaign rollout in which she first said she would have voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court and later reversed herself.

McConnell then joked that McGrath, who did not attend the picnic “sends her regrets. She’s still working up an answer on Brett Kavanaugh with her friends at MSNBC.”

McConnell supporters wearing “Team Mitch” shirts warmed up the crowd by parading through with giant cutouts of Kavanaugh and President Trump’s other Supreme Court pick, Neil Gorsuch, to be greeted with waves of the “Moscow Mitch” chant.

McGrath cited a previous commitment for not attending the Fancy Farm picnic. If she had, she would not have gotten the chance to address the crowd because under the rules for the event, only elected officials and candidates running for state offices in 2019 are invited to speak.

The picnic draws thousands of partisans from across Kentucky to Fancy Farm, a town of 500 on the far western side of the state that has hosted the event on the first Saturday in August every year since 1880.

The picnic is a fundraiser for St. Jerome Catholic Church in Fancy Farm, which was founded by Catholic settlers in the 1830s.

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