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Race to face Mitch McConnell and challenges to House Democrats Engel, AOC headline Kentucky, New York primaries

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U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) arrives as Senate Republicans hold their weekly policy lunch on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 16, 2020.

Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

A slate of primary elections Tuesday will decide who faces the top Senate Republican in November and whether two notable House Democrats can win another term in office. 

In Kentucky, state Rep. Charles Booker and Marine veteran Amy McGrath lead the field of Democrats hoping to challenge Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Booker, a Black man running on a sweeping liberal platform, has earned endorsements from the likes of Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren during a national reckoning over systemic racism.

McGrath, a White woman backed by Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, was once seen as an overwhelming favorite to win the primary as she ran on more centrist policies and anti-McConnell sentiment among Democrats fueled a fundraising bonanza.

In New York, Democratic House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Eliot Engel will try to hold off a strong primary challenge from middle school teacher Jamaal Bowman. The longtime representative has faced backlash for an extended absence from his district, which includes parts of the Bronx and Westchester County, when the coronavirus pandemic was ravaging the area. Bowman, a Black man supported by leading national and local progressives, has cast Engel’s views on a range of policies as backwards. 

Next door, Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will aim to fight back a primary challenge of her own — though the threat of her losing her seat by all accounts appears less serious than the one Engel faces. Two years after the democratic socialist shocked longtime Rep. Joe Crowley to win the Bronx and Queens district, Ocasio-Cortez will face former CNBC anchor Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, who has leveraged support within parts of the New York business community. 

Those races, along with others Tuesday, will help to assess Democrats’ appetite for reimagining institutions as the pandemic and police brutality put a spotlight on racial inequities in areas including health care, housing and the justice system. Generally, Democrats with more progressive platforms fare better in primaries in blue areas such as New York City than they do in red-leaning states like Kentucky. 

The Kentucky and New York elections will be the latest to go forward after delays due to the coronavirus. Results will likely come in slowly as the states process more mail-in ballots during the outbreak. 

The race to take on McConnell 

The killing of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman shot dead by Louisville police officers in March, reshaped the election between Booker and McGrath. Taylor’s death is among the killings that sparked nationwide protests against police brutality and a push to ban “no-knock” search warrants. (One of the three officers involved in the shooting has been fired.)

Booker, who has spoken at anti-racism rallies as he gains traction in the election, has criticized McGrath for not appearing at demonstrations. Asked at a debate earlier this month why she did not attend protests, McGrath in part cited the ongoing pandemic. 

Booker, who at 35 is the youngest Black state lawmaker in Kentucky, represents a Louisville-area district. McGrath previously challenged Republican U.S. Rep. Andy Barr in 2018, losing by about 3 percentage points. 

At a policy level, the two Democratic Senate contenders represent differing visions for the party. For instance, Booker backs a “Medicare for All” single-payer health care proposal and the Green New Deal, a sprawling climate change and jobs proposal. McGrath has called for bipartisan plans to fix the Affordable Care Act and more modest investments in clean energy. 

McGrath took a commanding position in the race early as she enjoyed more fundraising success than any other Senate candidate this election cycle. She has raised more than $40 million in all, and had $19.3 million in the bank as of June 3.

Booker raised just under $800,000 by the same date and had about $285,000 on hand. But he has raised roughly $3 million this month as his profile increased, according to reports. 

The Louisville Courier-Journal reported that a Civiqs poll commissioned by progressive think tank Data for Progress found Booker leading McGrath for by a 44% to 36% margin. 

For either candidate, unseating the Senate majority leader will prove a tougher task than winning the primary. McConnell’s campaign has raised nearly $33 million and had more than $15 million in the bank as of June 3. 

He last won election in 2014 by more than 15 percentage points. The Civiqs surveyed showed McConnell leading Booker and McGrath by 14 and 20 percentage points, respectively. 

New York House races in focus 

Engel, who has served in the House for more than 30 years, faces a fight to hold his New York 16th District seat. Both the pandemic and police brutality protests have put him on the defensive as Bowman looks to pull an upset. 

The congressman, who represents the city of New Rochelle, an early coronavirus hotspot, spent the worst of the pandemic in quarantine in Maryland. He has defended his absence from New York by saying he was in Washington doing his job. 

As he faced criticism for a lack of appearances in his district, Engel returned early this month following the start of widespread protests against racism in policing. As Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. questioned whether all the officials at an event would have time to speak, Engel was heard on a hot mic saying, “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.” 

The representative explained the comment by saying he wanted constituents to hear him address a key issue during a reelection push. Bowman has used the comment to portray Engel as out of touch with the district. 

Bowman, who is also endorsed by Sanders, Warren and Ocasio-Cortez, supports Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. He has backed efforts to defund the police, or slash at least some law enforcement funding and redirect it to social services.

While Engel signed on to a House Democratic police reform bill that does not cut funding, he has said he would be open to repurposing some police money. 

The last progressive to pull off a stunning upset for a New York House seat, Ocasio-Cortez, runs in her first election to defend her 14th District on Tuesday. Caruso-Cabrera has run as a centrist, pro-business candidate, criticizing the 30-year-old incumbent in particular for fighting Amazon’s plans to open a headquarters in Queens. 

Ocasio-Cortez has argued Amazon, which has some of the highest annual revenues of any American company, did not need the grants and tax breaks the state planned to give it. Amazon scrapped its headquarters plans last year but eventually expanded its presence in New York. 

Ocasio-Cortez has criticized parts of the federal response to the pandemic, arguing the U.S. should have provided more relief to workers through largely guaranteed paychecks and rent moratoriums, among other measures. 

Caruso-Cabrera has raised more than $2 million during the primary — a healthy haul for a challenger — and had more than $1 million on hand as of June 3. Her donors include Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman, hedge fund managers John Paulson and Cliff Asness, and former Macy’s CEO Terry Lundgren. 

Still, Ocasio-Cortez had $4.6 million in the bank on June 3. 

House races elsewhere in New York on Tuesday hold big stakes. Also in the Bronx, a primary will determine who replaces retiring Democratic Rep. Jose Serrano in a safe blue district.

In a crowded race for New York’s 15th District, Democrats worry City Councilman Ruben Diaz Sr. (the Bronx borough president’s father) will win. Diaz has a history of making homophobic comments and opposes abortion rights.

Western New York’s 27th District will hold a special election to replace Republican Chris Collins, who earlier this year was sentenced to 26 months in prison for insider trading. 

Republican state Rep. Christopher Jacobs faces Democrat Nate McMurray, who narrowly lost to Collins in 2018. 

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