McGrath Ekes Out Victory in KY's Democratic Primary

Dem wins narrowly after outspending opponent 40:1

Amy McGrath / Getty Images
June 30, 2020

Amy McGrath held on to win the Kentucky Democratic Senate primary on Tuesday, surviving a late push from a progressive state legislator whom she outspent 40-to-1.

With the national party's backing, McGrath has raised at least $41 million—more than any congressional candidate in the 2020 cycle—and spent more than $21 million on the primary. Kentucky state representative Charles Booker, meanwhile, spent just over $500,000 on the race as of June 3.

The huge spending advantage was enough to hand the Democrat a narrow victory. With roughly 90 percent of the vote counted, McGrath led Booker by less than 2 points, garnering nearly 227,000 votes to Booker's nearly 219,000.

McGrath turned her attention to out-of-state donors to give her an edge in her bid to run against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.). Her campaign launch video in July 2019 did not mention the word "Kentucky," and the Democrat went on to spend big on national ads that loosened liberal purse strings.

Long considered an afterthought in the primary, Booker's campaign surged as the African-American state legislator played a prominent role in Black Lives Matter protests following the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville. The progressive received endorsements from Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) and Ayanna Pressley (D., Mass.) in the days leading up to the primary. He also won the backing of former Kentucky secretary of state Alison Lundergan Grimes—who lost to McConnell in 2014—as well as the Louisville Courier Journal and Lexington Herald Leader. The Courier Journal called McGrath's campaign "unimaginative and uninspiring" in its endorsement.

Results from the race were delayed by widespread absentee voting due to the coronavirus pandemic. Many Kentucky counties chose not to report any absentee results until one week after the June 23 primary. Both McGrath and Booker held early leads as in-person Election Day votes trickled in, with Booker leading in Louisville's Jefferson County by nearly 65 points. His final push came too late, however, as absentee voting opened in the state weeks before his campaign reached peak momentum. Just 18 percent of Democratic voters submitted ballots in person.

McGrath's massive spending advantage pushed her over the edge in a gaffe-filled primary in which she alternatively portrayed herself as a blue-dog Democrat and true-blue progressive. She was forced to backtrack in July 2019 after saying she "probably" would have voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. The Democrat went on to argue that it was her opponent—Mitch McConnell—who was obstructing Trump's agenda, telling voters "you can't drain the swamp until you get rid of Mitch McConnell."

While the strategy helped her war chest, it may have alienated Bluegrass State residents. A Data for Progress poll released in June showed McGrath with a favorable rating of just 24 percent and an unfavorable rating of 59 percent.

McGrath will now face McConnell in November.