Ky. candidates vie for votes in highly-contested U.S. Senate race

Amy McGrath has long been considered the favorite, but in a changing campaign, Charles Booker is surging.
Published: Jun. 19, 2020 at 4:10 PM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - Just days away from the state’s delayed primary election, the U.S. Senate race in Kentucky looks a lot different now than it did at the start of the campaign.

First, COVID-19 forced candidates to trade face-to-face time for FaceTime, as they transitioned to virtual events and interviews - and also relied on TV ads and social media - with physical distancing restrictions in place.

Now the commonwealth and country are in an economic downturn stemming from the coronavirus shutdown, and cities everywhere are grappling with racial inequities and social injustice as conversations continue following the high-profile deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

"It turned this campaign upside down, and has changed things and led to a whole different dynamic," said WKYT Political Editor Bill Bryant.

The campaign is getting a lot of attention with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell up for re-election; money has poured in from across the country as Democrats try to unseat the six-term senator.

Ten candidates are on the Democratic primary ballot:

  • Jimmy C. Ausbrooks
  • Charles Booker
  • Mike Broihier
  • Maggie Jo Hilliard
  • Andrew J. Maynard
  • Amy McGrath
  • Eric Rothmuller
  • John R. Sharpensteen
  • Bennie J. Smith
  • Mary Ann Tobin

Only three candidates - Charles Booker, Mike Broihier and Amy McGrath - are running active statewide campaigns. Their campaigns have adapted in a world changed by a virus and by recent events exposing racial injustice.

“From the very beginning the campaign motto was ‘Economic and Social Justice for All,’” Mike Broihier said in an interview that airs Sunday on Kentucky Newsmakers. “And what was a call for economic and social justice back in July, I think has stopped being a call and is now a demand.”

Mike Broihier is a farmer, teacher and retired Marine who has made some waves in the campaign - including netting the endorsement of previous presidential hopeful Andrew Yang - but has been overshadowed by Charles Booker and Amy McGrath.

As the landscape of the race has changed, McGrath - long considered to be the favorite of national party leaders - will have to hold off a charging Booker if she hopes to challenge McConnell in the fall.

McGrath, a retired U.S. Marine fighter pilot, has painted herself as a moderate, pledging "people over politics" and saying, if elected, she will work with leaders of both parties in Washington.

“People are so tired of the partisanship,” McGrath said in an interview that airs Sunday on Kentucky Newsmakers. “I’m somebody that in my core wants to get things done, wants to move us in the right direction when it comes to things like healthcare, when it comes to things like good quality jobs and infrastructure and, of course, working toward social justice and issues that we all care about and that, really, Kentuckians are demanding right now.”

She has built up quite a war chest, raising $41 million - even more than Senator McConnell - according to the pre-primary campaign finance report through June 3. As of June 3 she had $19 million in cash reserves.

The Senate contest in Kentucky is the most expensive race of the 2020 cycle, according to, which tracks campaign contributions and spending.

“She [McGrath] has piled up money to run this election against Mitch McConnell,” Bryant said. “Now she’s had to turn her attention back to the primary and hope she can survive this push from Booker.”

Momentum is building for Charles Booker, whose message has resonated as he joined protests, rallies and marches in the aftermath of growing outrage following the death of Breonna Taylor in his hometown of Louisville.

“Standing on the front lines is natural to me,” Booker said in an interview that airs Sunday on Kentucky Newsmakers. “I want to stand with my family, and the people of Kentucky are my family. My campaign is all about the structural changes that make sure that we’re safe in our homes, we’re safe in our streets, we have thriving communities. Leadership is really about how you show up in the moments when you need it most. And Kentucky was crying out, and I stood with them, and the momentum is showing that they’re standing with me now as well.”

The state representative has accrued a long list of endorsements in recent days, including Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Kentucky Sports Radio host Matt Jones and other state Democratic leaders - including many of Rep. Booker’s colleagues from the statehouse.

And Booker’s campaign has also been bolstered by a surge in contributions, raising $2.4 million since the beginning of June, his campaign manager told the Louisville Courier-Journal.

A new Civiqs poll just released Thursday shows Booker with a 44 percent to 36 percent lead over McGrath (with a margin of error of 3.8 percentage points).

The same poll shows McConnell beating either candidate in a hypothetical matchup for the general election, although the poll shows a smaller margin of victory against Booker than McGrath.

Turnout for the primary is expected to be historically high. Secretary of State Michael Adams says nearly 890,000 voters requested an absentee ballot. Less than 670,000 people voted in the 2016 primary election, statewide election turnout records show.

“How that affects the outcome of the elections is unclear,” Bryant said. “What we do know is we’re seeing a trend right now where more of the absentee ballot applications have been heaviest in the metropolitan areas. We’ve certainly seen that in Louisville and in Lexington - and we’ll see to what extent that has an impact on the races.”

But we likely will not know the impact even by Election Night. With a lot of ballots being mailed in, the state will not have final results on Tuesday. Mail-in absentee ballots must be postmarked by June 23. Election certification is scheduled for June 30.

If you are not voting absentee, each county has at least one polling location that will be open on Election Day. (You can find the list here, or use the interactive graphic below.) Polls are open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday.

Kentucky Newsmakers with Bill Bryant, featuring interviews from all three major Democratic candidates, airs at 6 a.m. Sunday on WKYT and 10 a.m. Sunday on CW Lexington.

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