(CN) — Frontrunner Amy McGrath held off a late surge by Louisville native Charles Booker to win the Kentucky Democratic nomination for Senate on Tuesday, setting up a showdown with incumbent Mitch McConnell in November.
After in-person voting was delayed more than five weeks to June 23 because of the Covid-19 pandemic, residents in the Bluegrass State were forced to wait another week for absentee ballots to be counted and released.
Counties were required to submit their results to Secretary of State Michael Adams by 6 p.m. on June 30, but the race was essentially decided when Jefferson and Fayette Counties released their results in the morning.
Fayette County tabulated their votes and released the results shortly after 9 a.m., with Booker getting 27,520 votes to McGrath’s 24,005.
Jefferson County released their results at 10 a.m. and showed Booker getting 59.1% of the vote, or 88,116 votes, and McGrath getting 35% of the vote, or 52,224 votes.
The wins in Kentucky’s two most populous counties were not enough to get Booker the nomination, however, as McGrath dominated the state’s rural vote.
Booker conceded the race shortly before 6 p.m.
“As a poor black kid growing up in the West End of Louisville, I spent a lot of my life feeling alone and invisible. I don’t feel alone anymore,” he said in a statement. “I think it’s safe to say we shocked the world. From the hood to the holler, we stood our ground, and went toe to toe against the big donors, pundits, and DC politicians saying it wasn’t possible to run the kind of campaign I’ve always believed Kentucky deserves.”
Booker neglected to congratulate his opponent in the concession statement, and also pointed out that “we’ve proven you don’t have to pretend to be a Republican to run as a Democrat in Kentucky.”
With all 120 counties reporting their results, McGrath secured a three-point victory after garnering 45.41% of the vote, or 247,037 votes. Booker received 42.62%, or 231,888 votes.
Governor Andy Beshear allowed all registered voters to vote via absentee ballot for the first time in Kentucky’s history, which led to record turnout and a nail-biting wait for McGrath, who at one time was expected to coast to the nomination.
Long seen as the best shot to oust McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader, McGrath raised over $41 million for her campaign – more than any other Senate candidate in the country – but was forced to fend off a late challenge from the more progressive Booker.
McGrath celebrated her victory in a statement earlier Tuesday.
“I’m humbled that Kentucky Democrats have nominated me to take on Mitch McConnell in the general election and can’t wait to get started in sending him into retirement and finally draining the toxic Washington political swamp that he built,” she said.
McGrath congratulated Booker and said he “tapped into and amplified the energy and anger of so many who are fed up with the status quo.”
She called for unity among Kentucky Democrats and said would “start the dialogue necessary to bring us all together in our common cause for the general election.”
A confluence of events including nationwide protests over the killings of George Floyd and Louisville resident Breonna Taylor at the hands of police gave Booker the spark he needed to challenge McGrath.
The charge ultimately fell short, however, as even though Booker was able to dominate in-person and urban voting, absentee ballots swung the battle back in McGrath’s favor.
Miranda Combs, communications director for Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams, tweeted early Tuesday that over 1 million Kentuckians voted in the primary, which would put turnout at around 29%.
Although McGrath has amassed a substantial war chest to take on McConnell in the general election, it remains to be seen whether the well-entrenched GOP senator can be beaten.
A recent poll conducted by Civiqs from June 13-15 found McConnell getting more than 50% of the vote in November, regardless of his opposition.