Progressive Booker emerges as late threat to McGrath in Kentucky primary

Recent protests over racial injustice and police brutality are fueling an eleventh-hour surge for Kentucky state Rep. Charles Booker as he looks to overtake Amy McGrath in the race for the Democratic Senate nomination in Kentucky.

Booker, a first-term legislator from Louisville, has largely flown under the radar since launching his bid in January to challenge Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellClash looms over next coronavirus relief bill McGrath campaign staffers to join union Romney, Collins, Murkowski won't attend GOP convention MORE (R). But he has emerged as a powerful voice as protesters have taken to the streets in Louisville and across the country after the police killing of George Floyd.

A growing number of Democrats have begun lining up behind him, believing he is better suited for the political moment than the well-funded McGrath, who rose to prominence in 2018 during her close but unsuccessful bid to unseat Rep. Andy BarrAndy BarrThe Hill's Campaign Report: The political heavyweights in Tuesday's primary fights Democrat Josh Hicks wins Kentucky primary to challenge Andy Barr McGrath fends off Booker to win Kentucky Senate primary MORE (R-Ky.).

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“Charles kind of met the moment,” said Mark Riddle, a Kentucky-based Democratic strategist and the president of the political nonprofit Future Majority. “People seem to be for Booker right now in a way that I haven’t really seen them for Amy.”

A recent internal poll conducted for Booker’s campaign showed him trailing McGrath by 10 points ahead of the June 23 primary. While that’s not an insignificant margin, a similar internal survey fielded in April showed him down by more than 50 points.

At the same time, interviews with nearly a dozen political operatives in Kentucky revealed a growing consensus that Booker’s late-breaking momentum could prove fatal — or at least highly damaging to McGrath.

Last week, Booker scored endorsements from two of the most prominent progressives, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersJoe Biden wins New Jersey primary Biden wins Delaware primary Military madness in the age of COVID-19 MORE (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezWhat to watch in New Jersey's primaries on Tuesday Democratic strategist Andrew Feldman says Biden is moving left Hispanic Caucus asks Trump to rescind invitation to Mexican president MORE (D-N.Y.).

And on Tuesday, Alison Lundergan Grimes, who challenged McConnell in 2014 and remains one of Kentucky’s most prominent Democrats, threw her support behind Booker. Riddle said that endorsement could help introduce Booker to voters outside of Louisville, the most Democratic part of the state and the area where the legislator is best known.

Those endorsements flew in the face of Senate Democratic leaders, who encouraged McGrath to challenge McConnell and eagerly backed her.

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McGrath's high profile and early support from national Democrats has translated into unmatched fundraising success for the former combat pilot. Since January, she has raised upward of $24 million and has more than $19 million in cash on hand, a sum matched by no other Senate candidate.

By comparison, Booker brought in less than $800,000 in that same time frame. His most recent filings, which span from April 1 to June 3, show roughly $285,000 cash on hand. But that was before Booker began picking up momentum, and since then he has raised another $1.5 million over the past two weeks, his campaign manager, Colin Lauderdale, said.

Booker has taken advantage of the last-minute cash injection with a foray into paid television advertising. Over a two-day period last week, his campaign spent more than $400,000 on cable and broadcast ads, according to Advertising Analytics. Prior to that, he had not invested in traditional paid media.

On Wednesday, his campaign unveiled a new ad spot highlighting McGrath’s absence from and Booker’s presence at the recent protests that erupted in Louisville after the shooting of Breonna Taylor, a black woman who was killed by police at her apartment in March.

Asked during a June 1 Democratic debate why she had not appeared at the protests, McGrath said that she was spending time with her family an explanation featured prominently in Booker’s latest ad.

“I think if the McGrath campaign had a do over they probably would have been front and center on this a little bit more, let’s put it that way,” Matt Erwin, a Democratic strategist and former communications director for the Kentucky Democratic Party, said.

Terry Sebastian, a spokesperson for McGrath’s campaign, noted that she has attended several events and had conversations with local leaders about police brutality and racial injustice.

“Based on these conversations, she’s developed ideas on what can be done federally to start addressing police violence and systemic racism in the country including incentivizing states to require an independent investigation each and every time a police officer uses force that results in serious harm or death, banning chokeholds, training to recognize and counteract racial bias and guaranteeing every officer has a functioning body camera that’s actually turned on,” Sebastian said.

But several political operatives in Kentucky said that part of his recent rise also owes to lingering concerns about McGrath and the fact that Democrats in Washington lined up behind her so quickly. Some Democrats complained that other contenders, like Booker, were passed over in favor of McGrath.

“Some people here were rankled because there were any number of good candidates,” a Kentucky Democratic operative said. “The party committee in Washington sort of handpicked her.”

At the same time, some Democrats criticized early unforced errors by McGrath. In one of her first interviews after launching her campaign last year, for example, McGrath said that she would have supported Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughRomney, Collins, Murkowski won't attend GOP convention Susan Collins signals she won't campaign against Biden Hillicon Valley: QAnon scores wins, creating GOP problem | Supreme Court upholds regulation banning robocalls to cellphones | Foreign hackers take aim at homebound Americans | Uber acquires Postmates MORE’s nomination to the Supreme Court. She reneged on that statement hours later, saying she would have opposed his confirmation.

Her allies say she remains the candidate with the best chance of taking out McConnell in November, arguing that Booker’s more progressive platform and endorsements from the likes of Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez are political liabilities in a state that President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Jersey incumbents steamroll progressive challengers in primaries Tucker Carlson ratchets up criticism of Duckworth, calls her a 'coward' Trump on Confederate flag: 'It's freedom of speech' MORE won by 30 points. The Senate race is rated as "likely Republican" by The Cook Political Report.

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"Amy McGrath has a powerful grassroots campaign and a broad coalition of support across Kentucky that have made her the strongest candidate to defeat Mitch McConnell in November,” said Stewart Boss, a spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which has endorsed McGrath.

McGrath also has some key advantages. The presence of another liberal in the race, Marine veteran and farmer Mike Broihier, could split the progressive vote. What’s more, many voters may have already mailed in their ballots prior to Booker’s recent surge.

Several county Democratic Party chairs agreed Booker’s surge may be a moot point if too many Democrats have already voted. Many noted enormous expansions of early absentee ballots compared to prior years.

Crimson MacDonald, the chair of the Campbell County Democratic Party in northern Kentucky, said she’s received a dozen emails asking how to change a vote.

“The surge is real, and it would be enough to get him over the finish line,” MacDonald said. “I don’t know how many people have already voted. If a majority haven’t, I’d say the odds are in his favor. If the majority have voted, that might do him in.”

If Democrats want a shot at taking down McConnell, their strategy will run through northern Kentucky, a string of counties in the Cincinnati suburbs that have historically voted Republican but flipped last year to deliver a victory to Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear over incumbent Matt Bevin (R).

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Tom Elfers, the Democratic Party chairman in Kenton County, said Beshear’s victory energized local Democrats, proving that an unpopular Republican can be ousted. McGrath, as a native of Lexington, has an advantage in the area, he said.

“She grew up about a mile from where I’m sitting right now,” Elfers said. “That gives her a clear advantage over the other two, just because we know her she’s a hometown girl.”

Ousting McConnell in November will likely be a long shot for Democrats. McConnell is widely seen as an expert campaigner and fundraiser, and Kentucky has drifted further to the right over the years. The state hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1992.

McConnell’s allies are also quick to note that, despite Beshear’s victory, Republican candidates won every other statewide office that year.

Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist and former campaign aide to McConnell, said who wins the Democratic primary matters little to his prospects, especially given that Trump will be on the ballot in November.

“Ultimately, McConnell will run against someone who is ‘hell no’ on Trump or ‘hell yes’ on AOC and Bernie Sanders,” Jennings said. “So it’s fine either way.”