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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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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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North Carolina U.S. Senator Richard Burr steps down from chairmanship after FBI searches phone

Burr is under investigation for stock trades made before markets tanked due to coronavirus crisis

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

WASHINGTON (CFP) — The political and legal jeopardy facing U.S. Senator Richard Burr intensified Thursday, after the FBI executed a search warrant for his phone as part of an investigation into stock sales he made before the coronavirus crisis caused a market plunge.

Just hours after the Los Angeles Times broke the news about the search warrant, the North Carolina Republican temporarily stepped aside as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said Burr would relinquish the chairmanship “during the pendency of the investigation.”

“We agreed that this decision would be in the best interests of the committee,” McConnell said in a statement.

U.S. Senator Richard Burr, R-North Carolina

In brief remarks to a reporter Thursday, Burr, who has previously denied any wrongdoing in the stock sales, said he had been cooperating with the investigation, which he said should be allowed “to play out.”

Burr said he decided to step down from his chairmanship because the investigation “is a distraction to the hard work of the committee, and the members and I think that the security of the country is too important to have a distraction.”

Burr had been cruising toward retirement in his last term in the Senate as head of one of its most important committees before he was hit by blowback from stock sales he made in February, which are now being investigated by both the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

At issue is whether Burr used inside information he obtained as a senator to make the stock sales, which would violate federal law.

An FBI search warrant would have required a finding by a federal judge of probable cause that a crime had been committed and approval at the highest levels of the Justice Department, an indication of the seriousness of Burr’s potential legal jeopardy.

An analysis of financial disclosure reports by the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan research group, showed that on February 13, Burr sold 33 stocks worth between $628,000 and $1.7 million dollars, including stocks in hotel companies hard hit by the coronavirus. The stock market began to plunge about a week later.

Senators only have to report financial transactions within ranges on disclosure reports, so the exact amount of Burr’s stock sales is unknown.

Prior to his stock sales, Burr, as the intelligence committee chair, was receiving daily briefings from Trump administration officials about coronavirus.

ProPublica subsequently reported that Burr’s brother-in-law, Gerald Fauth, sold stock on the same day.

Members of Congress are permitted to own and trade stocks. However, trades have to be disclosed, and it is illegal for them to buy and sell stock based on insider information that isn’t available to the general public, under a law passed in 2012 that Burr voted against.

Burr has said his stock trades were based solely on publicly available information.

In addition to the stock sales themselves, Burr’s public comments during the early days of the coronavirus crisis have contributed to the firestorm he now faces.

On February 7, Burr co-wrote an opinion article for Fox News in which he said that the United States “is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus” and said public health officials were moving “swiftly and decisively” to deal with the threat.

But a week later, he began selling stock, and on February 27, he told a private meeting of North Carolina business leaders that coronavirus “is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history,” according to audio of the speech obtained by National Public Radio.

Burr also likened coronavirus to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that is believed to have killed at least 17 million people worldwide, NPR reported.

Burr, 64, was first elected in 2004. He has announced he won’t seek re-election to a fourth term in 2022.

It will be up to McConnell to pick a new chair for the intelligence panel Among the names being considered is Florida U.S. Senator Marco Rubio.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Rubio indicated he would be wiling to serve but downplayed the impact of the change, saying “whoever gets it is going to be a backup quarterback coming into the game for a few plays while the guy goes through a concussion protocol.”

Several other senators have had their stock trades come under scrutiny amid the coronavirus market plunge, including Kelley Loeffler of Georgia and Dianne Feinstein of California.

A spokesperson for Loeffler said Thursday that she has not been served with a search warrant.

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Insight: How the coronavirus crisis has set off odd, angry crosscurrents across Southern politics

Budget woes, religious liberty, economic freedom crash against public health concerns

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

The collision between an untreatable and potentially deadly virus and a conservative Southern political culture that is both business-friendly and skeptical of government dicta has sent odd and even angry crosscurrents rippling across the region’s politics.

For example, in Mississippi, Governor Tate Reeves, who was slow to close down his state, had to backtrack on plans for a quick reopening when coronavirus cases rose, on the same day that legislators from both parties united to strip him of authority to spend a $1 billion pot of federal coronavirus money.

An angry Reeves accused them of “stealing.”

Editor Rich Shumate

In Nashville, Mayor John Cooper proposed a whopping 32 percent property tax increase to deal with a coronavirus-related shortfall in city revenue — and admitted that he agreed with critics who began howling about the possibility of sharply higher tax bills.

But, said Cooper, the city has no other choice.

In Kentucky, the new Republican attorney general, Daniel Cameron, joined a lawsuit seeking to invalidate a ban on interstate travel ordered by the new Democratic governor, Andy Beshear — which Beshear imposed because Tennessee’s Republican governor, Bill Lee, wasn’t imposing stay-at-home orders as strict as what Beshear issued in the Bluegrass State.

In Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp stubbornly stuck to plans to reopen his state, even though Peach State mayors and even President Donald Trump had urged him not to do so.

Coronavirus lockdowns have triggered angry protests across the South, and governors have struggled to stop pastors from holding church services — raising First Amendment arguments in the nation’s most religious section.

With a few exceptions, states in the South were among the last to close down due to the coronavirus, and they are now among the first to begin reopening, in spite of warnings from some public health officials that doing so might be dangerous.

The decisions being made by Southern governors certainly reflect the political split that coronavirus is increasingly causing nationwide, with conservatives willing to accept risk to revive the economy and liberals taking a more cautious (critics might say overcautious) approach that prioritizes public health over economic good.

Ten of the 14 Southern governors are Republicans, and the GOP controls both legislative chambers in every state except Virginia, fostering a political culture that tends to be friendly toward business interests and libertarian when it comes to questions of personal liberty.

But the push to reopen also reflects that fact that except for Louisiana, the coronavirus crisis has not been as extreme in the region as it has been in hot spots such as New York and New Jersey.

While Louisiana’s death rate per 100,000 people stands at 40, Georgia comes in at 11, and the rest of the Southern states are all less than 10 — statistics that bolster the arguments of unemployed people demanding an end to stay-at-home orders, although providing little comfort to people at higher risk for contracting COVID-19.

The push to reopen is also attractive to Southern leaders for another reason — the lockdown is blowing a hole in state and local budgets that will only get worse the longer it goes on, presenting an unpalatable choice between steep budget cuts or higher taxes.

State governments can’t deficit spend, and the income and sales tax revenues they rely on are falling sharply. The effect of the sales tax plunge will be particularly acute on three Southern states that don’t have an income tax to fall back on, Texas, Florida and Tennessee.

Florida — where Governor Ron DeSantis drew sharp criticism for being late to close — is also heavily reliant on taxes generated by tourism, which has been decimated by the crisis. Oil prices have also crashed, which affects Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma, where lawmakers have been warned that they’ll need to deal with a $3 billion hit to the state’s budget.

Southern legislators have traditionally been reluctant to raise taxes, particularly income taxes in states that have them. But if they stick to that tradition, the cuts needed to balance budgets could be extreme — prompting outrage not only from those affected by the cuts, but also from those who believe the lockdowns were an unnecessary overreaction that caused more problems than they solved.

The strongest coronavirus crosscurrents have been seen in North Carolina and Kentucky, where Republicans control the legislature and Democratic governors were quicker to close and have been more reticent to reopen than their GOP counterparts.

In North Carolina, Roy Cooper faces the unenviable prospect of running for re-election in the middle of the pandemic against Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest, who has been pushing the governor to move more quickly to reopen parts of the state less affected by the virus.

Anti-lockdown protests have also grown in size and anger in North Carolina, with much of the ire directed toward Cooper.

In Kentucky, Beshear’s moves to clamp down on church services have drawn criticism from U.S. senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul and other Republican leaders.

The GOP holds super-majorities in both houses of the legislature and could force Beshear to back down from his coronavirus restrictions, although — perhaps fortunately for the governor — legislators don’t have the power to call themselves back into session to undo his handiwork.

In the Southern state hit hardest by coronavirus, Louisiana, Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards’s imposition of a lockdown has encountered less resistance. But even there, some Republicans in the legislature are now plotting to use an obscure state law to force him to reopen the state.

The coronavirus crisis has focused attention, both nationally and regionally, on governors; however, governors in just two Southern states, North Carolina and West Virginia, have to face the voters this fall.

Of more consequence come November will be whether the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus crisis affects Republican candidates in races for federal offices, particularly the U.S. Senate, where 14 Southern seats are up.

That list includes both seats in Georgia, where Kemp has, for better or worse, forged his own path in dealing with the virus, and McConnell’s seat in Kentucky, where he’s already running ads touting his role in pushing coronavirus relief bills through Congress and his Democratic opponent, Amy McGrath, is deriding those bills as a sop to special interests.

Because no one knows how long the coronavirus crisis will last, or how things will turn out, its political consequences are as yet unknowable, particularly because we’ve never been through a crisis quite like this before.

Political stability and certainty, it seems, lie among coronavirus’s victims. The rest is unlikely to be peaceful.

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“Matt Bevin can rot in hell”: Outrage erupts in Kentucky over flurry of last-minute pardons

Legislators call for investigation into pardon given to brother of man who hosted Bevin fundraiser

By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com

LOUISVILLE (CFP) — Outrage is building in Kentucky over more than 400 pardons and commutations issued by former Republican Governor Matt Bevin before he left office, with the GOP leader of the state Senate now calling for a federal investigation and a victim’s family member quoted on the front page of the state’s largest newspaper saying Bevin “can rot in hell.”

Among those pardoned by Bevin: A man serving a 23-year sentence for raping a 9-year-old girl in Kenton County; a man serving 20 years for killing a Bowling Green motorist in 2014 while driving 90 mph down a two-lane road with a blood alcohol level more than twice the legal limit; and a woman serving a life sentence for dumping her newborn baby in an outdoor toilet in Grayson County in 2003.

Headline in Louisville Courier-Journal

But the pardon drawing the most scrutiny was given to Patrick Ryan Baker, who was serving a 20-year sentence for his role in a 2014 home-invasion homicide in Knox County — and whose brother and sister-in-law hosted a fundraiser for Bevin that raised more than $21,000 to pay off debt from his 2015 gubernatorial campaign.

Baker’s two co-defendants did not receive a pardon from Bevin; Baker, who was the triggerman in the slaying of Donald Mills, will now be released from prison, over the strenuous objections of prosecutors who put him there.

In its story on the Baker pardon, the Louisville Courier-Journal used as a headline a quote from a member of the Mills family: “Matt Bevin can rot in hell.”

Even U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — in Frankfort to file the paperwork for his 2020 re-election bid — weighed in on the pardons when questioned by reporters, calling Bevin’s actions “completely inappropriate.”

But Bevin, who called the evidence against Baker “sketchy at best,” is fighting back against criticism of the pardons, tweeting that “myriad statements and suggestions that financial or political considerations played a part in the decision making process are both highly offensive and entirely false.”

“Not one person receiving a pardon would I not welcome as a co-worker, neighbor, or to sit beside me or any member of my family in a church pew or at a public event,” Bevin said. “No community is either more or less safe now than it was before the pardons and commutations given over the past four years.”

The pardons are but the latest  in a slew of controversies that dogged Bevin’s single term in office and placed him among the nation’s least popular governors. Despite Kentucky’s Republican tilt, he was defeated for re-election in November by Democratic Governor Andy Beshear, who took over on Dec. 10.

In all, Bevin issued 428 pardons and commutations between his defeat on Nov. 5 and when he left the governor’s post. Because a governor’s power to issue pardons is absolute, there is no way to overturn them.

However, Senate President Robert Stivers — like Bevin, a Republican — is calling on federal prosecutors to investigate the pardons, which he called “a travesty and perversion of justice.”

“Our citizens, and especially the crime victims and their families, deserve better,” he said.

Democratic legislators have also called on incoming Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron to look into the pardons after he takes office next week.

Alan Simpson, the lawyer for the family of Jeremy Pryor, the victim in the Bowling Green DUI murder case, said in a statement that the pardon “screams of either a complete lack of empathy for other human beings, willful ignorance to the truth or outright corruption.” He said Pryor’s family would also press for an investigation, according to a report in the Bowling Green Daily News.

Michael “Drew” Hardy was convicted of murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison after for crashing his Jeep into the back of Pryor’s vehicle after a day of heavy drinking in 2014. According to trial testimony, his blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit, and he was driving 90 mph down a two-lane road at the time of the crash.

In the paperwork accompanying Hardy’s pardon, Bevin wrote that he did not believe his continued incarceration serve any purpose and that he “will arise each day for the rest of his life with a debt that he cannot possibly repay,” according to the Daily News.

In the Mills case, Baker and two other men impersonating police officers forced their way into a home in Knox County to rob it, with Donald Mills and his wife and children inside. Baker, who shot Donald Mills, was convicted of reckless homicide and robbery and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Bevin did not offer an explanation for why he pardoned Baker but not his co-defendants.

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