McGrath raises Russia bounty issue in Kentucky Senate race

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FILE - In this Nov. 6, 2018, file photo, Amy McGrath speaks to supporters in Richmond, Ky. McGrath overcame a bumpier-than-expected Kentucky primary to win the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination Tuesday, June 30, 2020 fending off progressive Charles Booker to set up a bruising, big-spending showdown with Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston, File)

LOUISVILLE – Taking the offensive after her narrow primary win, Democratic Senate nominee Amy McGrath challenged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to disclose what he knows about intelligence assessments suggesting Russia offered bounties for killing U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

McGrath, a former Marine pilot, tweeted Wednesday that she's “disgusted that nothing's been done" in response to the assessments and demanded McConnell “man up and tell the truth." She later accused the senator of “dereliction of duty," unwilling to challenge President Donald Trump and hold Russia accountable.

“Mitch, you get regular security briefings," McGrath tweeted. “What did you know and when did you know it?"

With the primary behind her, McGrath’s quick barrage was a prelude to what’s expected to be a big-spending, hard-fought fall campaign in Kentucky as McConnell seeks a seventh term.

When asked to comment on the McGrath attack, McConnell's campaign referred to the senator's previous remarks on the matter in pushing back against her claim that he's being passive in the face of the intelligence assessments.

Asked by reporters this week whether the president should have been briefed on the assessments, McConnell replied: “Look, I don’t have an observation to make about that. What you’ve heard our colleagues say is conclusions apparently were not reached in this matter and I can’t imagine whether the president is subjected to every rumor."

In a Senate speech Wednesday, McConnell warned again of Russian efforts to undermine U.S. interests in the Middle East.

“The United States needs to prioritize defense resources, maintain a sufficient regional military presence and continue to impose serious consequences on those who threaten us and our allies — like our strikes in Syria and Afghanistan against ISIS, the Taliban and Russian mercenary forces that threatened our partners,” McConnell said.

In recent days, McGrath barely held off a late surge from progressive state Rep. Charles Booker to win by 15,149 votes in the Democratic primary. The results were released Tuesday, a week after the election. Kentucky switched to widespread absentee voting for the primary amid the coronavirus pandemic, and election officials needed days to count ballots.

McGrath, who received just 45% of the vote in the crowded primary, quickly sought to unite the party behind her for the grueling campaign against McConnell, who has dominated Kentucky’s political landscape for decades. McConnell breezed to the GOP nomination.

To further party unity, Democratic strategist Mark Riddle said, McGrath needs to stand up for issues that matter to the party’s faithful. “She’s going to have to draw sharp contrasts and be really strong and tough against McConnell ... and show that she’s willing to throw a punch,” he said.

Both campaigns said they are flush with new campaign cash, having each raised more than $1 million in the 24 hours after winning their primaries.

Looking to exploit the divided Democratic vote, McConnell's campaign said the close outcome showed McGrath’s candidacy is damaged heading into the general election.

“No candidate has spent so much to achieve so little as Amy McGrath, who spent $25 million on a primary that divided her party deeply and sent her on a path for failure this fall,” McConnell campaign spokeswoman Kate Cooksey said Wednesday.

State Democratic Rep. Angie Hatton said she hopes to see Booker campaign with McGrath. It was a successful strategy for Democrats last year when Rocky Adkins campaigned alongside Andy Beshear. Beshear defeated Adkins in the primary and then won the governorship last November.

“That’s what I’m hoping to see is that Charles will lend some of his charisma and his ability to reach certain demographics where Amy didn’t do as well in urban areas and with younger folks," she said.

McConnell's campaign, meanwhile, is focusing on his alliance with Trump and his Senate leadership position, which puts Kentucky “at the table for every major decision," said Scott Jennings, who is close to McConnell and worked for President George W. Bush.

He added that Trump is likely to carry Kentucky by a wide margin in November.

“If you are McGrath, how do you convince tens of thousands of his voters to choose a senator who would have thrown him out of office?" said Jennings, who teaches a class on modern political campaigns at the Harvard Kennedy School. “This is a very simple construct I expect McConnell to use to his advantage."

McGrath has said she would have voted to convict Trump after House Democrats impeached him.