Amy McGrath’s Victory Shows The Power Of Establishment Cash

Photo: Philip Scott Andrews/The Washington Post/Getty Images.
The numbers from last week’s primaries have finally rolled in, and Amy McGrath has officially won in the race against Charles Booker in Kentucky's Senate Primary. McGrath pulled in just slightly ahead of Booker, getting 45.1% of the vote, and will move on to face Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in November. While this is a win for McGrath and establishment Democrats, it’s a major loss for progressive voters who support the Green New Deal, universal basic income, and Medicare For All.
McGrath's win did not come for lack of funding, though — 96% of her donations are from out-of-state donors, according to OpenSecrets. The former Marine fighter pilot raised over $40 million while campaigning, garnering many donations from outside of her district, and was backed by labor unions as well as many establishment Democrats like Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY). While she was able to pull off a victory over Booker, and an upset to the progressives backing him, many in the larger Democratic party fear that McGrath's stances will not be strong enough to beat out McConnell, who boasts a history of beating establishment Democrats.
Advertisement
In 2014, McConnell defeated former Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes by 15 points, who was also well-funded, and who endorsed Booker in this primary. In a Tuesday victory speech, McGrath alluded to veiled concerns over her race against McConnell. "There can be no removal of Mitch McConnell without unity," she said. "We must unify our Democratic family to make that happen, including those who didn't vote for me in the primary."
The fear that McGrath may not oust McConnell is rooted in her position as an establishment Democrat, and where she collected campaign money. Compared to McGrath, Booker ran a more grassroots, progressive campaign funded mostly by donations. He racked endorsements from heavy-hitting progressives like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as well as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Booker was the candidate who met the moment of civil unrest and protests demanding material change for Black people and people of color in his community, having built a diverse coalition of many young people and leftists looking for something staunchly different from McConnell.
When the Louisville Courier-Journal endorsed Booker, and called McGrath’s campaign “unimaginative and uninspiring” saying that it’s “fallen flat in these final weeks of the campaign.” But Booker, attending Black Lives Matter protests frequently and speaking out about his plans to oust McConnell, came in with a new energizing approach. 
In facing McConnell, McGrath will have to answer to the movement that brought Booker — a relative underdog — so close to her in the race, and so primed to actually beat McConnell. Earlier polls showed that McGrath has little chance to beat McConnell and oust him from his seat of over 30 years, with McGrath trailing McConnell by 20 points when they go head-to-head in the election. Booker also trailed McConnell by a smaller, 14-point margin, and was said to have a better chance at beating the career politician. 
And, earlier this month, a Data for Progress poll found McGrath’s favorability rating not exactly hitting record numbers. Of the 898 registered Kentucky voters surveyed, only 24 percent said they have a favorable view of her. Fifty-nine percent reported having an unfavorable opinion of McGrath, and 18 percent said they were unsure.
McGrath is known for losing a high-profile congressional race in 2018, and has largely coasted on donations and faith from the establishment, while Booker showed the ability to build a strong coalition of people from all backgrounds ready for transforming the systems that have not been working for Kentuckians. But now that she’s won, could Booker push McGrath left and could she grow her base to get wider support from those ready to give McConnell the boot? The win in November is a long shot, but only time will tell.

More from US News

R29 Original Series