As Kentucky Democrats fill out absentee ballots that will decide next week who takes on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, they have to decide whether they want a fundraising powerhouse who might appeal to moderate independents or if that moderation will turn off liberals so much there’s no chance she could beat the six-term incumbent.
State Rep. Charles Booker offers a very different path forward than retired Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath, long seen as the front-runner. But as Booker’s appeal surged with endorsements from the state’s two largest newspapers as well as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, even his own polling has shown him trailing McGrath, who gained national attention in her unsuccessful challenge to Kentucky Rep. Andy Barr in 2018.
The third candidate in the race, Mike Broihier, a farmer and retired Marine, touts supporters such as former presidential candidate Andrew Yang. Like Yang, Broihier is pushing for universal basic income and has been working to pick up support of his own, arguing that he is the best suited to take on McConnell.
Whose approach will best appeal to primary voters?
The answer is complicated by a primary that may be conducted overwhelmingly by mail, with state and county election officials scrambling to keep up with unprecedented demand for absentee ballots because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The deadline for requesting ballots was Monday.
The Booker campaign is pointing to internal numbers showing that the gap between him and McGrath had narrowed by more than 40 points since January, to less than 10 points.
“Folks don’t want another middle-of-the-road Democrat who doesn’t speak to the issues of our generation,” Booker said in a fundraising message Sunday. “There’s no way we’re going to build the movement we need to defeat Mitch McConnell with someone who’s running to help Trump with his agenda.”
Kentucky political observers on all sides sensed a momentum shift after the police shot and killed Breonna Taylor and David McAtee in Booker’s hometown of Louisville, especially as the broader debate about police brutality in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked protests and an outcry across the nation, including in Kentucky.
Booker, an African American and first-term state representative who hails from Louisville’s impoverished West End, has joined protests and pushed for the city’s Democratic mayor to fire now-ousted police chief Steve Conrad.
“I think it’s lit a spark that is inspiring a lot of people to believe that we need new leadership, and now is the time to elect a young black man from the poorest ZIP code in Kentucky,” he recently told WLKY-TV.
McGrath has faced attacks in television ads from both left and right, with Booker criticizing her for past statements about her willingness to work with Donald Trump and McConnell’s campaign blasting her support of the president’s impeachment.
It’s a prelude of sorts to what would certainly be a key line of attack for McConnell were he to face McGrath in November. The McConnell operation endlessly criticized 2014 opponent Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Kentucky secretary of state at the time, for not saying whether she had actually voted for President Barack Obama.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has endorsed McGrath, and her astronomical fundraising has continued, with roughly $19 million in cash on hand in early June.
“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," DSCC spokesman Stewart Boss said in a statement.
McGrath has also joined a legal effort seeking to expand voting access for the primary next week, including more options for in-person voting. That could help the eventual Democratic nominee.
“During a global pandemic, we must work toward bipartisan, common-sense solutions to not only protect voting in Kentucky, but also protect our voters and those who are working hard to ensure we have a successful election process,” McGrath said in a statement. “As a leader, I do not want Kentuckians facing the challenges folks in Georgia and Wisconsin recently endured.”
The Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville, which hosts the state fair, was scheduled to be the only site for in-person voting on primary day in Jefferson County, where nearly 767,000 people live.
On Monday, the McGrath campaign announced it had succeeded in getting additional voting locations in two counties in northern Kentucky, and it would continue to advocate more access elsewhere in the state.
Broihier’s campaign argues that he also has a chance, given the unpredictable circumstances of the race, citing the apparent slippage in support for McGrath among Democratic primary voters. It also cites an effort to appeal to voters who may still be registered Democrats but have voted for Republicans frequently in the recent past.
“I am in this fight because I believe Mitch McConnell needs to be defeated, and it will take someone who’s not a politician to get the job done,” Broihier said in a statement. “I only care about the people of Kentucky and giving our state the best shot possible of taking down Mitch McConnell. And as a farmer, teacher, and Marine corps veteran, I believe I have the best resume to do it."
McGrath and her supporters point to polling showing her competitive with the Republican majority leader, if not ahead.
Booker and his supporters argue for setting up the clearest possible contrast and offering a distinct message that can resonate in 2020, while Broihier and his advocates point to an appeal to a broader swath of rural Kentucky.
Among Democrats who have yet to return their absentee ballots, the unifying force is sure to be opposition to seeing McConnell win reelection, and the candidates in the field are making very different arguments for how best to achieve that.