WASHINGTON – Amy McGrath, a former seafighter pilot who built a formidable campaign war chest, emerged Tuesday as a Democratic candidate to face Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, rejecting a left-wing challenge that highlighted the ideological divisions of the party.
A week after the primaries were conducted, the Associated Press declared Ms. McGrath the winner after a campaign that was shaped by the coronavirus pandemic and protests against racial injustice. He briefly defeated Charles Booker, an African-American state lawmaker who used anger over a couple of fatal wounds from Louisville authorities to roar in contention in the final weeks of the campaign.
But Booker’s late wave in what had been a relatively quiet naming competition was another illustration of the progressive momentum in the Democratic Party, as outrage over racial injustice amplifies requests for transformative change. A shameless progressive, Mr. Booker ran on “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal.
It was not clear until Tuesday that Ms. McGrath had won because a number of Kentucky counties waited to make sure they counted their numerous votes sent first releasing results.
He will face a tough battle against Mr. McConnell, the Senate majority leader, in a state that President Trump carried out about 30 points four years ago.
Even Mr. Booker would have found a contest against Mr. McConnell difficult. In choosing Ms McGrath, however, the Kentucky Democrats are taking a careful course, proposing a moderate politician well-funded with military credentials in a red state.
Mr. Booker, who functioned as an outspoken progressive, argued that such an approach had been attempted before and was doomed to fail. Winning the support of local newspapers and liberal leaders outside the state such as Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Mr. Booker furiously attacked the killings of Breonna Taylor and David McAtee to shake up what had been a quiet run mostly conducted under the radar until the last month.
Ms. Taylor was killed eight times after Louisville police officers entered her apartment with a ram. Mr. McAtee was shot at his Louisville barbecue while police and the National Guard confronted curfew violators.
The factory-aligned national Democrats, led by New York Senator Chuck Schumer, had actually tried to crown Ms. McGrath last year. By virtue of the extensive fundraising list she built in her failed 2018 House race and the disdain that Democratic donors have for Mr. McConnell, they saw her as someone who could run competitively and perhaps force Republicans to divert money to Kentucky.
He will still have a lot of money for his run against Mr. McConnell, who is looking for a seventh term, but his erratic performance as a candidate, first in 2018 and again in this primary, has raised doubts about how strong a campaign will be in the general elections.
Ms. McGrath’s prospects depend in part on the proximity of a former race vice president Joseph R. Biden Jr. can race in Kentucky against Mr. Trump. If Mr. Biden basically manages to cut the margin Mr. Trump enjoyed there in 2016, it will offer her more chances to win. This is because in this polarized era, there are relatively few voters who are willing to split their tickets, in this case by voting for Trump and then a candidate for the Democratic Senate.
His challenge is compounded by McConnell’s strongest position among Republicans. After facing mistrust on the right in the Tea Party era, McConnell improved his popularity with the Kentucky Republicans by aligning largely with Mr. Trump.