Updated 3 p.m. | The winners of some of the most closely contested primaries in Kentucky and New York Tuesday may not be official for several days, thanks in part to a surge in absentee ballots due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Democratic battle to be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s challenger and the fate of longtime New York City Reps. Eliot Engel and Carolyn Maloney were among the races that remained uncalled early Wednesday as ballots were still being counted, and making their way through the mail.
In both states, absentee ballots could be postmarked by Election Day. Ballots can be received as late as Saturday in Kentucky and June 30 in New York.
As a result, only in races where the margin of votes was overwhelming was the winner clear. One example was in Kentucky’s 4th District where Rep. Thomas Massie, a Republican who President Donald Trump angrily tweeted in March should be thrown out of the party for being a “granstander” on a coronavirus relief bill, coasted to victory in his primary with 88 percent of the vote.
Another was New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The high-profile freshman faced a challenge from her right from former CNBC anchor Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, who was backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Ocasio-Cortez, who pulled off an upset primary win of her own in 2018, had won 74 percent of the vote compared to Caruso Cabrera's 19 percent when The Associated Press called the race Tuesday night.
But in Kentucky’s Democratic Senate primary, where former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath faced a strong challenge that developed late in the race from state Rep. Charles Booker for the nomination to face McConnell, it was clear no one expected a winner on Tuesday.
"As eager as we all are to get results, I am grateful for the extra effort and due diligence to make sure every voice is heard,” McGrath said in a statement released shortly before 10 p.m. “As we wait for results, I hope everyone takes a moment to get a little rest.”
In New York, primaries featuring five Democratic incumbents in New York City remained uncalled. In these deep blue districts, the Democratic nominees are favored to be elected in November.
New York officials had said absentee ballots would not be reported Tuesday night, so partial tallies from The AP consisted of votes cast prior to Election Day at early voting sites and on Tuesday at a reduced number of polling places.
Just before noon Wednesday, former middle school principal Jamaal Bowman declared victory over Engel, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Tallies by the AP last updated shortly before 3 a.m. had Bowman leading 61 percent to 36 percent with a lead of nearly 9,100 votes out of nearly 36,000 cast.
It was unknown, however, how many absentee ballots remained to be counted. Election officials said those tallies would not be announced until next week.
In a statement, Bowman said the results showed the people of the 16th District wanted change.
“The world has changed. Congress needs to change too,” he said. “I'm a Black man who was raised by a single mother in a housing project. That story usually doesn't end in Congress. But today, that 11-year-old boy who was beaten by police is about to be your next representative.”
Engel's campaign spokesman, Tom Watson, said there were thousands of absentee ballots that will be counted next week.
"Any declarative statement on the outcome of this race right now is premature and undermines the democratic process," he said. "In the meantime, the Congressman will continue his work for the people of the Bronx and Westchester."
Maloney, who chairs the House Oversight and Reform Committee, had 41.5 percent while Suraj Patel, her primary opponent in 2018 as well, had 40 percent.
"We are confident in our path to victory after a very strong performance on Election Day, which traditionally favors establishment voters," Patel said in a statement.
Rep. Yvette Clarke was in better shape, with 62 percent to community organizer Adem Bunkedekko's 18 percent. Democratic Reps. Jerrold Nadler, the Judiciary Chairman, and Tom Suozzi's primaries also remained uncalled, but they had sizable leads.
Races also remained uncalled in the Democratic primaries for seats opened up by the retirements of Rep. José E. Serrano in the South Bronx and House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey in Rockland and Westchester counties. There were also no calls on Long Island in primaries in both parties for the open seat being vacated by GOP Rep. Peter King and for the Democratic challenger to Rep. Lee Zeldin.
On Staten Island, Republican Nicole Malliotakis had a commanding lead in her bit to challenge freshman Rep. Max Rose.
In Upstate New York, former GOP Rep. Claudia Tenney had a strong lead in her bid for a rematch against Rep. Anthony Brindisi, but there was a tight race between two would-be challengers to Democratic Rep. Antonio Delgado.
And Democrat Dana Balter had a strong lead in her bid for a rematch against GOP Rep. John Katko in the 24th District, but opponent Francis Conole's campaign manager said in a statement Tuesday night as many as 70 percent of the votes cast still needed to be counted.
"The margin will go up and down as these remaining ballots are counted in the coming weeks," said the campaign manager, Will Van Nuys.
The delay in results are due in part to exponential increases in voters requesting to vote absentee, with in-person voting potentially dangerous during the coronavirus pandemic.
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, said Monday that more than 880,000 absentee ballots had been requested across the commonwealth, with more than half of them already returned.
In New York, the State Board of Elections reportedly received roughly 1.7 million absentee ballot applications. That is more than 10 times the number requests for absentee ballots in the 2016 primary.
Voting advocates in both states said during a Tuesday press call they had received complaints from voters who requested absentee ballots but had not yet received them, although those exact numbers were not clear.
“We had a huge expansion without an infrastructure to make it as smooth as possible,” Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said during a press call Tuesday.
But turnout was still expected to be high. In Kentucky, numbers looked likely to easily outpace the total primary turnout in 2014, which featured a GOP primary in which McConnell faced a challenge with future (now former) Gov. Matt Bevin.
Beshear predicted the highest turnout for a primary in many years, even as critics were complaining that despite the bipartisan plan that has increased access to early voting in Kentucky during the COVID-19 pandemic there could be issues for voters trying to vote in-person on election day.
“Through an agreement with my office and the Secretary of State, we for the first time allowed mail-in voting and ‘no-excuse’ early voting in Kentucky,” Beshear told reporters Monday.
Several populous counties, including the city of Louisville and contiguous Jefferson County, offered only one in-person polling site Tuesday, encouraging early and absentee voting. The Louisville site at the sprawling Kentucky Exposition Center seemed to run relatively smoothly, but voting rights groups expressed concern about the inability of seniors and others to vote closer to home in more accessible locations.