Senate Democratic primary heads to finish line in Kentucky

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Lexington Herald-Leader

U.S. Senate candidate Amy McGrath speaks to people during a visit to Thankful Hearts Food Pantry in Pikeville, Ky., Monday, June 22, 2020. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – One of Kentucky's most unpredictable political races in years is headed toward the wire Tuesday, but it's taking a full week after the June 23 primary to sort out a possible photo finish in the Democratic U.S. Senate contest.

Absentee ballots that stacked up amid the coronavirus pandemic have delayed the vote count in the neck-and-neck race between progressive candidate Charles Booker and establishment-backed Amy McGrath. Both are vying for the chance to take on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who coasted to victory in the GOP primary in his bid for a seventh term.

The lead in the Democratic primary has flipped back and forth between Booker and McGrath as results of individual counties' absentee tally trickle in. McGrath had a lead of 1,106 votes as of 4:30 p.m. Monday, but both campaigns were awaiting absentee counts from the state's two most heavily populated counties, Jefferson and Fayette. Booker, who is from Louisville in Jefferson County, had led earlier in the day by a mere 20 votes.

For months, McGrath looked to be coasting toward the nomination as the former Marine pilot raised huge amounts of campaign cash and exchanged attacks with McConnell in what seemed a prelude to the fall campaign. But the Democratic contest in this GOP-dominated state turned volatile when Booker, a Black state lawmaker, seized momentum in the final weeks.

Booker's profile surged amid national protests over the deaths of Black Americans in encounters with police, including the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police. Booker, who is Black, touted a universal basic income and Medicare for All — ideas that McGrath has resisted. His progressive stances won him support from Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., among others.

Both campaigns sounded confident Monday as they awaited the outcome.

“We are thrilled with the absentee results so far," said McGrath’s campaign manager, Mark Nickolas. “Amy is winning the vast majority of the counties by double-digit margins, and (we) are eager for the final numbers tomorrow.”

Booker campaign manager Colin Lauderdale said the race could be close but he remained upbeat. The results reported so far haven’t changed the fundamentals of the race, he said, adding: “We know so little about the absentees yet, that it’s hard to get a clear picture.”

One factor could be how many absentee ballots were cast early on when McGrath appeared on a glide path toward the nomination, compared to those filled out once Booker had the momentum. The surge allowed him to advertise more heavily in the last few days of the race.

If disproportionate numbers were returned early before voters got to know Booker, that's “really the only thing that I think is a threat to us winning the race,” Lauderdale said.

Another question was whether Booker would match his big in-person voting leads in Louisville and Lexington among absentee voters. Booker had lopsided advantages among those who showed up to vote, though most people in those cities voted by absentee ballot. But McGrath is well-known in Lexington, where she ran a close but unsuccessful race for a U.S. House seat two years ago, and she courted union support, a key voting bloc in Louisville.

County clerks have to submit vote totals by Tuesday to the secretary of state’s office. In Fayette County, which covers Lexington, the local elections board was set to convene Tuesday morning to tally final results, which were expected to become public by late morning.

The state turned to widespread mail-in absentee voting because of the coronavirus pandemic, while still allowing in-person voting as well. To be counted, absentee ballots had to be postmarked by primary election day and received by county clerks’ offices by the Saturday after the election.

With the outcome still undecided, McConnell's campaign has portrayed both Democrats as too liberal for Kentucky. Neither challenger “has a path to victory" against the incumbent, said McConnell campaign manager Kevin Golden.