Record Turnout Expected in Kentucky Primary as McConnell Challengers Face Off

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., walks to the chamber on March 18, 2020. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

(CN) — Money isn’t everything, even in politics, and Amy McGrath, the Democrats’ handpicked candidate seen as the best chance to oust Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, may learn that lesson the hard way.

McGrath, a former fighter pilot who amassed a war chest of over $40 million thanks in large part to nationwide support from the Democratic Party, is suddenly facing the possibility of losing a primary next Tuesday that seemed locked up just months ago.

The shakeup is due, in large part, to a series of unfortunate events including the Covid-19 pandemic, which not only delayed the May election to mid-June, but also compelled Kentucky to allow all of its residents to vote by absentee ballot.

Then, on the heels of the shooting of Breonna Taylor by Louisville Metro police officers and nationwide outrage over the killing of George Floyd, Louisville became a hotbed of unrest and community upheaval in a fight for justice.

Enter Kentucky State Representative Charles Booker, a Louisville native who seized the opportunity to galvanize the minority community in his hometown and his state to surge in the polls and give McGrath a run for her money.

Booker attended Black Lives Matter rallies and traveled across the state in the wake of the protests, while McGrath was noticeably silent as the movement gained momentum.

Former Vice President Joe Biden stands on stage with then-congressional candidate Amy McGrath on Oct. 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston, File)

McGrath eventually said in an interview that she did not attend any of the protests in Louisville because of “family things.”

According to his official Twitter account, Booker raised nearly $1 million from June 4 to 12, and in the interim has garnered endorsements from Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Courthouse News spoke with Ryan Salzman, associate professor of political science at Northern Kentucky University, who said 2020’s turbulence has reshaped the political landscape for this year’s primary.

“I try to imagine what the election would have been like back in May if it had been held normally,” Salzman said. “It’s hard to imagine a situation where Amy McGrath doesn’t just run away with the Democratic primary.”

The five-week delay, however, “opened the door” for Booker, according to Salzman.

“The Black Lives Matter movement has clearly given him the platform to be able to establish himself and really introduce himself to the commonwealth,” he said.

Polls are starting to show the results of Booker’s surge in popularity, and a survey conducted from June 13 to 15 by online polling company Civiqs had the Louisville native ahead of McGrath by 8 percentage points.

Perhaps more telling, the poll showed only 24% of the nearly 900 Kentuckians surveyed have a favorable view of McGrath.

McGrath began her campaign as the darling of the Democratic Party, and has taken a more moderate approach to divisive issues, possibly to sway less conservative Republicans and independents.

Jasmine Farrier, chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Louisville, likened McGrath’s strategy to the one used by Governor Andy Beshear.

“Some Democrats,” she said by email, “have been successful in Kentucky by avoiding direct criticism of President Trump and the Republican Party (including Gov. Andy Beshear’s close election in 2019). McGrath seems to be following that same strategy.” (Parentheses in original)

Kentucky State Representative Charles Booker and his family. (Photo via Charles Booker for Senate)

Regardless of which Democrat goes up against McConnell, they will face an uphill battle against the experienced Washington operative.

“Over the last few decades, sometimes McConnell will say that Kentucky needs an experienced senior leader to deliver beneficial legislation to Kentucky regardless of who is in the White House, and other times he pivots to rhetoric that is more partisan in style,” Farrier said. “Either way, Majority Leader McConnell will tout 35 years of experience in DC. In his last election, McConnell won by 15 points, which was a higher percentage than polls predicted.”

Salzman echoed the sentiment, saying “this is a very conservative state.”

“The idea that a blue wave exists across the United States, I won’t disagree with that,” he said. “But that that exists in Kentucky, I’m not confident in that.”

Turnout in the primary is expected to be well above average because of the availability of absentee ballots, and Secretary of State Michael Adams recently put the number of Kentuckians participating at just under 30%.

“You did it, Kentucky,” Adams said in a tweet, “889,679 registered voters requested an absentee ballot for the June 23 primary. Add to that 48,044 registered voters who’ve voted early in-person as of [June 15]. Together that’s 27% of registered voters. Turnout in this primary will be historically high.”

As a result of the historic increase in absentee ballots, it’s likely that results will be delayed by days or even a week.

Officials in Jefferson and Fayette counties, home to Louisville and Lexington, respectively, have already confirmed they won’t release results until every vote is received and counted.

Kentucky’s absentee voting system this year requires that all ballots be postmarked by Election Day, June 23, and received by the county clerks’ offices by June 27.

Whether increased turnout and ease of voting will be enough to spur long-term policy changes in the way Kentuckians vote remains to be seen, however, and Salzman expressed doubt about any potential reforms.

“The legislature next term is going to have so much to do. They had to punt on a lot of budgetary issues, on a lot of pension issues, and this just may not be able to find the light of day,” he said. “There just may not be enough political oxygen in the room to be able to sustain another hugely important policy issue like voter change.”

At this time, the state has not decided whether the expansion of absentee voting will carry over to the general election in November.

What has become clear in the week leading up to the election is that McGrath will not go down without a fight, and doesn’t plan on letting her stacks of cash go to waste.

McGrath’s campaign bought more than $3 million of television and radio ads for the week leading up to Election Day, and is hoping that last push will be enough to fend off Booker.

Courthouse News will have coverage of the Bluegrass State’s primary election on Tuesday, along with updates as results are announced.

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