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Aftermath in the Bluegrass


As most any of you who have been following the Kentucky Democratic primary now know, Amy McGrath defeated Charles Booker 45.4-42.6, with a spread of about 16000 votes. Booker won heavily in in-person voting, and won five counties across the state, including Jefferson (Louisville) and Fayette (Lexington). The overwhelming bulk of the vote, over 85%, came in by mail. Early voting, some of which came in before Booker surged in recent weeks, seems to have heavily favored McGrath. The election fell just short of modern record turnout at 28.87%, just behind the modern record set in 2008. Both Jefferson and Fayette were slightly ahead of state turnout, however, which is relevant because both counties received heavy criticism for their voting procedures.

The first good news, in my view, is that a fair election seems to have been held in pandemic conditions, and that the election led to heavy turnout in the densest counties in the state. This should not be controversial, except for the disastrously misinformed spotlight put on the election in the days before final votes were cast. The second good news (and this will be considerably more controversial) is that the candidate most likely to endanger McConnell in November will be moving forward.

This second argument will require a lot of elaboration. For the record, I like Charles Booker a lot, and if conditions had broke slightly differently, he would have won the primary. McGrath has run a campaign (clumsily, at the start) designed to appeal to crossover voters, not to mobilize the base. This worked find until conditions mobilized the base, which put McGrath in severe danger of losing the primary. Politics are hard, and them’s the breaks. Moreover, in at least one poll run towards the end of the campaign, Booker outperformed McGrath against Mitch.

So why do I think McGrath is *more* likely to *endanger* McConnell than Booker (and I emphasize the “more” and “endanger” for good reasons)? Because she has more money, because she has a personal story that may compel crossover voters, and because she has run her campaign aimed directly at potential cross-over voters. This November, Donald Trump will win Kentucky by at least 15 points (in 2016 he won by 29). For a Democrat to win a Senate seat in Kentucky under these conditions, half of that margin (about 15% of total Trump voters) needs to vote for the Democrat. McGrath has structured her entire campaign around capturing that slice. Booker structured his campaign around base mobilization. The former has a (small) chance of winning in the general; the latter has virtually none.

This is one reason I think placing the Booker-McGrath election in the same set as the various primaries in New York and elsewhere where progressives defeated centrist Dems is a category error. In districts where Democrats are overwhelmingly likely to win candidate notwithstanding, the most progressive viable candidate is an excellent choice. In districts or states where Democrats are at a profound disadvantage, the choice is different. We can pretend that voters who will happily pull the lever for Trump are susceptible to enthusiastic progressive messaging, or we can grasp the sliver of a chance of replacing Mitch McConnell with someone who is undoubtedly to the considerable left of Joe Manchin. This is not, to my mind, much of a choice.

This is nothing that most of you haven’t heard before, and so I suspect that some of you will have strong views one way or another on this kind of argument. That’s fine. For what it’s worth, there would have been barely a residue of difference between McGrath and Booker in terms of voting record, given the nature of the Senate. Of course, that’s not everything; senators prioritize issues across a range of their responsibilities, and the way McGrath prioritized would be much different than Booker. But whether those difference are worth giving up even an awfully slim difference in the chance to unseat McConnell is a question that depends of values more than anything else.

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