Booker leads McGrath but most Kentucky votes not yet counted

U.S. Senate candidate Charles Booker greets people at a campaign stop at Pikeville City Park in Pikeville, Ky., on Monday, June 22, 2020. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Progressive candidate Charles Booker pulled ahead of Amy McGrath on Thursday in his bid for an upset in Kentucky’s Democratic U.S. Senate primary, but most votes had yet to be counted.

Booker led by fewer than 3,000 votes as of Thursday afternoon, based in part on a dominating showing so far in his hometown of Louisville, the state’s largest city, where he garnered 80% of in-person votes counted. Booker also had a lopsided advantage so far in Lexington, the state’s second-largest city.

“We’re going to have to wait a few days for final results, but we are fired up by what we’re already seeing in the early returns,” Booker said in a statement. “We feel like we’re in a strong position to bring this home once every vote is counted.”

Booker, who supports a universal basic income and Medicare for All — ideas that McGrath has resisted — also was showing strength in parts of rural Kentucky.

McGrath’s campaign remained confident that she’ll emerge as the Democratic nominee. McGrath, a retired Marine pilot, was seen as the clear frontrunner for most of the campaign until Booker seized the momentum in the final weeks.

“We are looking forward to tallies of the absentee ballots, which is 90% of the total vote,” said McGrath’s campaign manager, Mark Nickolas. “In counties that have already reported them, Amy is winning by huge margins, so we feel great about the outcome.”

The suspense from Tuesday’s primary is expected to last a full week after the election. County clerks have to submit vote totals by next Tuesday to the secretary of state’s office.

The winner faces an uphill battle in the fall against Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is seeking a seventh term. McConnell, who has aligned himself with President Donald Trump, breezed to victory Tuesday in the GOP primary.

Election officials in Kentucky are counting massive numbers of absentee ballots. The state turned to widespread mail-in absentee voting because of the coronavirus pandemic, while still allowing in-person voting as well. All absentee ballots had to be postmarked by primary election day and received by county clerks’ offices by June 27 — the Saturday after the election — to be counted.

There could have been a deluge of absentee ballots returned just before the deadline. As of Monday, the day before the election, 54% of absentee ballots had yet to be returned, Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams said Thursday.

“We’re on track to have the highest number of votes ever cast in a Kentucky primary election, easily,” Adams said in an interview.

McGrath had the backing of the party’s national establishment and raised prodigious amounts of campaign cash, reflecting McConnell’s status as a lightning rod for Democrats nationally. She portrayed herself as the best Democrat to take on McConnell.

Booker, a Black state lawmaker, seized late momentum amid national protests over the deaths of Black Americans in encounters with police, including the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police. Booker’s slogan “from the hood to the holler” is aimed at uniting Black and white Kentuckians behind his message of economic justice.

Booker received endorsements from Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, as well as Kentucky’s two largest newspapers.