Amy McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot, is the projected winner of the Democratic Party primary for U.S. Senate in Kentucky. With the help of a whopping $41 million in campaign donations, the more moderate McGrath beat out Charles Booker, an unapologetic Medicare-for-all progressive and Kentucky’s youngest black lawmaker. She will compete against Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in November.
In the week since Kentucky’s election day, it appeared as though Booker might squeak out a victory: He held a lead over McGrath from time to time, and he received 80 percent of the in-person votes in Louisville, the state’s largest city. Booker’s momentum was unmistakable: He outshined McGrath in the coverage leading up to election day and received a slew of coveted endorsements from Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (who shifted her backing from McGrath once Booker entered the race), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Julian Castro, and the editorial boards of the Lexington Herald-Leader and The Courier Journal, the two biggest newspapers in Kentucky.
But on Tuesday, McGrath was declared the winner with 45.4 percent of the vote to Booker’s 42.7 percent. Absentee ballots certainly helped McGrath’s victory, but despite having been in the race longer than Booker and outspending Booker 10-to-1 on television ads alone—a reported $11.1 million to Booker’s $1.1 million—she only beat Booker by less than three percentage points. (And he might have done better if another progressive in the race hadn’t managed to scoop up 5 percent of the vote.) None of this presents McGrath as the challenger of the moment, but that’s not the only thing that makes her feel a bit out of touch.
Booker’s rise was arguably emboldened by the surge of protests and the focus on police brutality in Kentucky, where a 26-year-old black woman named Breonna Taylor was shot and killed by Louisville police officers who entered her home using a no-knock warrant. Booker became the politician willing to take on racist cops and a racist system, a position with increasing popularity in the United States, by participating in protests, calling for the end of no-knock warrants, and agitating to demilitarize the police.
Meanwhile, McGrath stayed a safer choice. Rather than calling out the police who harass protesters and black communities alike, she released an ad lamenting the death of George Floyd and quickly pivoted to lambasting President Trump for his support of military force against protesters. While certainly an appalling position from the president, the move served as a reminder of her military bonafides and a dunk on Trump rather than demonstrating an understanding of the fragility of black lives in the hands of state actors. Booker called the ad exploitative.
This race is a microcosm of the infights in the Democratic Party today, which pits so-called “electable” candidates against those with so-called pie-in-the-sky vision. The battle for Never Trump conservatives and white suburbanites versus jaded voters and marginalized groups. Establishment backing versus lefty endorsements.
The establishment won this round.
The argument from McGrath loyalists is easy enough to follow: McGrath’s status as a veteran and a fiscal conservative who opposes Medicare-for-all and free college and the abolishment of Immigration and Customs Enforcement means she appeals to the average Kentuckian far more than Booker’s Bernie-adjacent politics. She supports the Affordable Care Act and wants to get McConnell out of Congress, what more can we ask for? Beggars can’t be choosers, after all.
Except, a better choice was in reach, and his name was Charles Booker, a 35-year-old diabetic who had to ration his insulin to afford to feed his daughters, who was teargassed during a recent march for black lives, and actually believes in universal healthcare at a time when Americans may need it most. The electability argument doesn’t change the fact that, quite frankly, neither Booker nor McGrath stands much of a chance of beating McConnell November. A few thousand Kentucky Democrats decided that they’d rather lose with someone who feels safe than someone who meets the moment.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece referred to Kentucky as Louisiana. Kentucky is not Louisiana and Louisiana is not Kentucky.