Booker and McGrath make push in Kentucky to close unusual Democratic primary

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PIKEVILLE, Ky. — The two leading candidates in an unusual Democratic primary for U.S. Senate headed to the mountains Monday, making a final push in Eastern Kentucky among people who haven’t yet voted in Tuesday’s election.

Kentuckians have been asked to vote with absentee ballots to avoid spreading the novel coronavirus and around 50% of the people who requested ballots had already turned them in by Sunday, according to the State Board of Elections.

In Jefferson County, around 35% of voters requested ballots and in Fayette County around 38% requested ballots, marking potentially high turnout for the primary election.

That didn’t stop former Marine Corps Pilot Amy McGrath and state Rep. Charles Booker from hitting the campaign trail, albeit in different fashions. While Booker has capped his campaign with a traditional bus tour and rallies, McGrath has made smaller appearances at existing events, reluctant to bring together a crowd during the pandemic.

Lincoln County farmer Mike Broihier, the third leading candidate, did not make any public appearances Monday.

In April, Gov. Andy Beshear and Secretary of State Michael Adams agreed to push back the election to June 23 and to allow everyone to vote via absentee ballot. In the time between the old election date and the new one, the political environment drastically changed.

Roiled by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and David McAtee, protesters have poured into the streets demanding immediate change. It has given Booker a chance to step into the spotlight as the candidate demanding action.

Former House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Prestonsburg Democrat who has endorsed Booker, said if the election had been held earlier, Booker would not have had a “snowball’s chance.”

“He’s in the right place at the right time,” Stumbo said. “A lot of the time politics is being in the right place at the right time.”

The momentum has allowed Booker to raise his name recognition and peel away some of McGrath’s support — internal polls for the Booker and McGrath campaigns had Booker down 10 percentage points a week before the election, after he had started the race as a relative unknown.

His campaign has raised more money in the last two weeks than it did in the first five months of his campaign. To capitalize on his late momentum, Booker’s campaign launched a bus tour throughout the state over the past week, complete with photo lines at each stop, a relic of campaigning before COVID-19.

“Knowing that there was a small percentage of absentee ballots turned in, we knew we had an opportunity to continue to tell the story and make the case,” Booker said. “We know those votes are going to be for us, because this is about Kentucky and we are going to win this race.”

After a small rally of around 50 people in Pikeville, Booker said he is trying to ensure Kentuckians can be heard. Only 14% of eligible voters requested an absentee ballot in Pike County.

“In this moment, we’re trying to make sure folks know how to vote,” Booker said in an interview. “There’s a lot of confusion. We want to make sure people can get to the polls if they need to vote in person.”

McGrath, too, expressed concern over the changes that were made to voting, saying she was worried whether people without internet would be able to request a ballot. She attempted to join a lawsuit that asked a federal judge to increase the number of polling places in Kentucky’s largest counties but her motion (and later the whole lawsuit) was dismissed.

Most counties will have only one location to vote in-person on Tuesday. In Fayette County, the location is Kroger Field.

“I think it remains to be seen,” McGrath said about whether voters will be disenfranchised. “We know there will be problems. That’s why we signed onto that lawsuit.”

McGrath has spent more than $21 million on the election so far, most of it geared toward the general election and targeting U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The money has allowed her to build up name recognition in the state, but in positioning herself as a moderate candidate, she’s alienated some on the left who are looking for more progressive stances in what feels like a watershed moment.

Speaking to the media after she visited Thankful Hearts Food Pantry, which recently burned down, McGrath said she didn’t feel like she was just clinging on to her lead in the final days of the election.

“No. I think we have built a very strong network all around Kentucky of 120 counties that are excited to get rid of Mitch McConnell,” McGrath said. “And I’m excited to do that, too.”

At the food pantry, former Gov. Paul Patton said he believes McGrath will still win the primary, even if not by as much as she would have a month ago.

“That’s relative to where he started from,” Patton said. “He’s gotten enough money to get on television and that’s going to give him the appearance of momentum, but I think the groundwork Amy has laid over the last year almost, it’s going to be awful hard to make up on that.”


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