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Kentucky's Democratic Primary To Decide Who Takes On Senate Leader McConnell

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The race among Democrats who are vying to take on Mitch McConnell in Kentucky this year has gotten a lot more competitive. The clear favorite had been retired marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath. She raised millions of dollars with the help of establishment Democratic leaders. But Charles Booker, a state representative, has seized the moment after protests over racial violence erupted in his hometown of Louisville. Ryland Barton from Kentucky Public Radio says Booker is getting help from national progressive leaders like Bernie Sanders.

RYLAND BARTON, BYLINE: Amy McGrath has impressive credentials. She was the first woman to fly in an FA-18 fighter jet in combat. She worked in Congress and the Pentagon as a foreign affairs adviser and taught in the Naval Academy. To top off the storybook resume, when she was 13 years old, she wrote Mitch McConnell a letter asking him to help undo the ban on women serving in military combat roles. As she said in an ad announcing her campaign last summer...

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD, "THE LETTER")

AMY MCGRATH: He never wrote back.

BARTON: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer courted McGrath to run against McConnell shortly after she lost a close race for Congress in 2018, paving the way for her to raise an eye-popping $41 million so far in the race. But she's not the only Democrat running here.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Hands up...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Don't shoot.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Hands up...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Don't shoot.

BARTON: State Representative Charles Booker has made a late surge, riding on a wave of outrage over police violence in his hometown of Louisville. Here he is at a Black Lives Matter rally earlier this month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARLES BOOKER: And I know there are members in law enforcement here. Some of you may have threw gas at me. I need you to hear something. We pay for your jobs.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Breonna Taylor.

BARTON: Protesters in Kentucky and across the country have been outraged by the death of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency room worker from Louisville who was shot to death by police serving a no-knock warrant at her apartment in March. But Booker's been speaking about these issues for a long time.

BOOKER: I speak often on the House floor. I was saying that if you're from certain parts of this state, if you look like I do, for instance, you can be seen as a deadly weapon before a human being. And so we've got to address that.

BARTON: Since the protests began, a flood of endorsements have rolled in for Booker from local Democrats and national figures like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And the attention has helped him raise almost $2.5 million since the beginning of June, three times the amount he had raised during the entire race.

Booker has also been buoyed by liberal Democratic voters who think McGrath is too moderate. Coming out of the gate last summer, McGrath said in an interview that she would have voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court then retracted the statement hours later. And her opponents have painted her as being too soft on Donald Trump. She's accused McConnell of getting in the way of the president's agenda.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MORNING JOE")

MCGRATH: The things that Kentuckians voted for Trump for are not being done. He's not able to get it done because of Senator McConnell.

BARTON: In many ways, McGrath is running how Democrats in Kentucky have run statewide campaigns for years. Democratic Governor Andy Beshear managed to avoid weighing in on the president very much during his successful campaign last year. McConnell's opponent in 2014, Alison Lundergan Grimes, refused to even say if she voted for President Obama. Al Cross is a longtime political journalist in Kentucky.

AL CROSS: This is a fairly conservative state. It's a state that's only about 10% people of color. But you can't deny the energy of the moment from which Charles Booker is drawing.

BARTON: Strategists from both parties say Democrats' chances of winning control of the Senate are getting better this year. But McConnell's seat isn't one they're counting on to take the majority. Still, his role as majority leader guarantees that the race will continue to get national attention. There are 10 Democrats vying for the chance to take him on in the fall, and he's drawn seven Republican challengers. Recent polls show McConnell with a low approval rating in the state. But they did in 2014, as well, and he won reelection by more than 15 points.

For NPR News, I'm Ryland Barton in Louisville.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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