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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, 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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