Schumer’s Candidate Clings to Lead in KY Senate Primary

Amy McGrath could become the biggest fundraiser to lose a congressional primary in history

Amy McGrath / Getty Images
June 24, 2020

Establishment-backed candidate Amy McGrath is clinging to an early lead over a far-left state legislator in Kentucky's Democratic Senate primary despite waging one of the most expensive primary campaigns in history.

As of Wednesday afternoon, McGrath leads progressive state representative Charles Booker by just 4,000 votes. While nearly 600,000 Kentucky voters returned absentee ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic, all votes reported thus far were made in person on Election Day. In addition, no votes have been reported from the state's most populous county, Jefferson. The county includes Booker's home city of Louisville, where the addition of urban voters could erode McGrath's lead.

Should that lead crumble in the coming days, McGrath would become the biggest fundraiser to lose a congressional primary in U.S. history. With the help of the Chuck Schumer-controlled Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), McGrath raised $41 million, nearly 97 percent of which has come from out-of-state donors. The Kentucky Democrat spent at least $21 million on the race—about 40 times more than the $508,000 Booker spent as of June 3.

McGrath could also become the latest establishment-backed Democrat to lose to a progressive challenger. Far-left middle school principal Jamaal Bowman declared victory over Rep. Eliot Engel (D., N.Y.), chairman of the powerful Committee on Foreign Affairs, on Wednesday morning. Bowman holds a commanding 27-point lead, though the race has yet to be called as absentee ballots will not be tallied until Tuesday.

Schumer did not respond to a request for comment, nor did the DSCC.

Both Booker and Bowman surged in the polls amid national protests following the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville. The timing of Booker's late push may become McGrath's saving grace—absentee voting began in Kentucky on May 22, weeks before Booker gained serious traction. Absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day, however, will be counted in the race, giving voters a larger window to make their decision.

"That could be good news for Booker, especially given that he appears to have the late momentum here," Cook Political Report Senate editor Jessica Taylor told the Washington Free Beacon.

One GOP operative in the state agreed, noting that absentee ballot requests peaked in many counties as Booker began gaining ground.

"Booker didn't catch lightning in a bottle until close to mid-June. However, in a lot of counties, the request rate for absentee ballots started to hit a peak around that time," the operative told the Free Beacon. "So even though a lot of early requests were made, there's a possibility that he could slide in because the ballots were hitting mailboxes right when people were gaining interest in his campaign."

A final result in the primary will likely take days. Most Kentucky counties decided to hold full absentee ballot results until June 30, one week after Tuesday's primary. This includes both Jefferson and Fayette, the state's two most populous counties. Roughly 161,000 people voted in person on Tuesday, while 110,000 voted in person prior to Election Day and nearly 600,000 voted absentee.

As early results trickled in, Booker said he was "fired up" and "ready to bring this home" in a Tuesday evening tweet. McGrath said she was "eager to get results" in a tweet sent Wednesday morning.

The eventual winner will face Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in November. The Kentucky Republican won his primary by 82 points on Tuesday.