Establishment-backed Democrats in Kentucky and New York are facing a left-wing backlash that could see millions of dollars go to waste and threaten party unity in the run-up to the 2020 election.
In the Kentucky Democratic Senate primary, the emergence of an African-American state lawmaker with support from progressive groups is threatening to derail Amy McGrath's campaign to challenge Sen. Mitch McConnell (R.) in November. And in New York, Justice Democrats candidate Jamaal Bowman is seeking to unseat 16-term Rep. Eliot Engel by painting the incumbent Democrat as out of touch with his increasingly progressive district. Party leaders, who back McGrath and Engel, face a potential lose-lose situation with both the establishment candidates facing fierce competition in their primary races this Tuesday .
The Chuck Schumer-controlled Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee endorsed McGrath in February. With the help of its national apparatus, she's raised $40 million in her bid to oust McConnell, more than any other Senate candidate in the 2020 cycle. Given her backing by the national party and massive money advantage, McGrath had been a favorite to coast to victory in Tuesday's primary.
But the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville this March flipped the race on its head, giving progressive state legislator Charles Booker a serious shot at winning the nomination. Booker saw his candidacy skyrocket in the wake of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis police custody, and landed endorsements from prominent progressives as he took a leading role in anti-police protests.
Bowman's campaign has focused on the Black Lives Matter movement, highlighting Engel's gaffes on the issue. Following violent protests in New York City, the incumbent Democrat was caught on a hot mic at a June 2 press conference, saying he "wouldn't care" about speaking if he "didn't have a primary."
Both races pit the party's progressive wing against its national establishment. University of Kentucky political scientist Stephen Voss called the dynamic an "age-old battle."
"The ideologues always think that a more partisan, more ideologically pure candidate will do better, because they'll excite the party. Almost everybody else says, 'No, the way you win is by appealing to the median voter, the person in the middle,'" he told the Washington Free Beacon. "To the extent the 'mobilize the base' strategy is effective—that's usually in lower turnout elections, where the 'base' is the minority of the electorate, but can still win if people aren't turning out."
The unexpected tightening of the Kentucky Senate primary complicates the 2020 election for Democrats. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) and Ayanna Pressley (D., Mass.), and former Kentucky secretary of state Alison Lundergan Grimes all backed Booker in recent days, helping him more than double his fundraising efforts in the last two weeks alone.
On one hand, McGrath's war chest would likely help Democrats put pressure on McConnell in the general election, but her candidacy has been weakened by Booker's surge. And while Booker could emerge from the primary with grassroots momentum, his victory would allow the McConnell campaign to run against a far-left opponent in deep-red Kentucky, according to Cook Political Report Senate editor Jessica Taylor.
"McGrath's weaknesses have kind of been laid bare here. She can have good ads and spend a lot of money, but this really calls into question some of her candidate skills," Taylor told the Free Beacon. "And while I think running as a candidate with Bernie Sanders's endorsement could help [Booker] in a primary, I don't think it helps him at all in a general election in Kentucky."
After a recent Data Progress poll showed Booker leading McGrath in the primary by 8 points, Schumer defended McGrath, calling her a "strong candidate" that will "give McConnell a run for his money." But behind closed doors, Schumer admitted that he did not consider McGrath a "top tier candidate" and planned to "use her to raise money" against McConnell.
"Her fundraising has been her biggest strength, but I think part of that has been driven just by who she's running against," Taylor told the Free Beacon. "You see a lot of liberal donors wanting to give to defeat Mitch McConnell. Whether that fundraising ability would transfer to Booker, we don't know yet."
Neither Schumer, McGrath, Booker, nor Bowman returned requests for comment. Engel spokesman Tom Watson called the race "tough" but said that Engel "has had primaries before."
"His record is long and distinguished, and as the Congressman always says, he has a two-year contract with the people and welcomes their decision," Watson added.
While both McGrath and Booker are expected to lose to McConnell in November, Bowman is likely to serve in Congress should he unseat Engel—Hillary Clinton defeated President Donald Trump in the Bronx district by 50 points in 2016.
Limited in-person voting will take place in Kentucky and New York on Tuesday, but both states have seen a surge in absentee ballot requests amid the coronavirus pandemic. Polls close at 6:00 p.m. local time in Kentucky and 9:00 p.m. EST in New York City.