FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Ex-Marine pilot Amy McGrath, who seemed to be gliding toward a primary victory in Kentucky, has come under heavy fire from both directions in the closing days of the Democratic contest to determine who challenges Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the fall.
Two of McGrath’s more progressive primary opponents portray her as too compliant with President Donald Trump — an attack aimed at undermining her standing with hard-core Democrats. From the other flank, McConnell’s camp has tried to paint her as too extreme for Kentucky.
“She’s clearly coming under some pressure,” said longtime Kentucky political commentator Al Cross.
McGrath, who lost a close congressional race in 2018, has tried to straddle a pragmatic course to appeal to Democrats without giving McConnell more openings.
“We need people who are going to work with anyone,” McGrath said recently. “Who will do what’s right for Kentucky. Who wears any jersey, whether it’s a red or blue. … That’s who I am.”
With her prodigious fundraising as the choice of the party’s national establishment, McGrath has run TV ads since last year to raise her name recognition and slam McConnell. The incumbent has hit back in what could be a prelude to a bitter fall campaign.
With McConnell expected to cruise through the GOP primary, he’s ready to pounce if McGrath’s support erodes and the Democratic primary tightens. In a preemptive shot, McConnell campaign manager Kevin Golden says McGrath has run an “inauthentic” campaign that left her “unattractive to Democratic voters.”
Amid the caustic exchanges, one of her Democratic opponents has picked up momentum ahead of the June 23 primary. Freshman state Rep. Charles Booker won endorsements from the biggest stars in the progressive movement — Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — and from Kentucky’s two largest newspapers, the Louisville Courier Journal and Lexington Herald-Leader. Booker recently released his first TV ad that says a “real Democrat” is needed to take the fight to McConnell, the top-ranking congressional Republican who is seeking a seventh term.
“When you understand the challenges that Kentuckians face, you don’t run as a pro-Trump Democrat,” Booker said in a swipe at McGrath during a recent forum on statewide TV. “You don’t play these political games. And listen, you’re not going to convince folks that have supported Donald Trump to vote for you because you’re not as bad as Mitch McConnell.”
Booker and another Democratic candidate, Mike Broihier, could end up dividing votes among progressives, leaving a clear path for McGrath and bolstering her moderate credentials for the fight against McConnell in conservative Kentucky. Booker and Broihier support a universal basic income and Medicare for All — ideas that McGrath has resisted. McGrath supports adding a public health insurance option as part of the Obama-era Affordable Care Act and also supports expanded access to Medicare for people 55 and older.
Her primary opponents portray her stances as too tepid in such tumultuous times.
“We have this history in Kentucky for the last 35 years of running nice but centrist candidates against Mitch McConnell and getting creamed every time,” said Broihier, a political newcomer with a broad resume as a Marine officer, farmer and small-town newspaperman.
McGrath has saved much of her criticism for McConnell. She accuses him of undermining labor unions, backing “a big fat tax cut” for the wealthy and cozying up to pharmaceutical companies while people struggle to afford prescription drugs. She portrays him as an out-of-touch insider at the center of what’s wrong with national politics.
“He is somebody who is constantly pushing for dysfunction when somebody of the other party is in power,” she said. “That’s why he’s so bad for Kentucky and for our country. Because it’s all about obstruction and partisanship for him.”
One wild card in the Democratic contest could be fallout from recent protests in Louisville, the state’s most heavily Democratic area. People took to the streets to demand justice for Breonna Taylor, who was killed in her home in March. The 26-year-old black EMT was shot eight times by Louisville narcotics detectives who knocked down her front door while attempting to enforce a search warrant. No drugs were found in the home.
Booker, who is black, was the most visible of the candidates in demanding change, standing with protesters in his hometown. He spoke passionately about police treatment of blacks and the cycle of violence and poverty plaguing African Americans.
“I’ve been in those streets demanding justice,” he said. “This isn’t a tweet for me. It isn’t aspirational to just say we need to listen and do more. We need results right now.”
The state’s primary, usually in late May, was pushed back to June 23 because of the pandemic. Both Senate primaries drew crowded fields of candidates, though McConnell faces only token opposition from a half-dozen challengers. McGrath, Booker and Broihier have commanded the attention on the Democratic side. The politically wily McConnell has looked beyond his primary in trying to influence voters’ views of McGrath.
Another uncertainty is what impact the state’s altered election, due to the coronavirus pandemic, will have on voter participation. Kentuckians are being allowed to vote by mail.
Cross sees that as an advantage for McGrath. The better-known of the three leading Democratic candidates, she has spent on advertising to inform people how to vote by mail.
“She clearly benefits from easier voting because her voters are less motivated,” he said. “She is the moderate, relatively speaking.”