Kentucky Democrats pick ex-fighter pilot McGrath to challenge U.S. Senate leader McConnell

(Reuters) - Former fighter pilot Amy McGrath said on Tuesday she was ready to take on Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell after edging out a Black progressive to clinch the Democratic nomination for the seat.

McGrath, 45, held off fellow Democrat Charles Booker, a state legislator, who had surged late in the campaign as protests spread across the United States over police violence against Black people.

With all Kentucky's counties reporting, McGrath won 45.4% of the vote to 42.6% for Booker, Kentucky officials said. The primary took place on June 23, but mailed ballots were accepted through Saturday, delaying the final results.

Booker conceded the race, but said he was concerned some Kentuckians could not check the status of their mailed ballots online.

"Let's dedicate to the work of beating Mitch, so that we can get him out of the way," Booker said in a statement.

McConnell, 78, the most powerful Republican in Congress and a staunch supporter of President Donald Trump, is seeking a seventh six-year term.

"Last November, Kentuckians didn't hesitate to replace an incompetent and unpopular incumbent. This November, we’re going to do it again," McGrath wrote on Twitter, referring to Democratic Governor Andy Beshear's 2019 defeat of Republican Matt Bevin.

McGrath won establishment Democrats' backing early in her campaign, and raised a massive $41 million.

Emphasizing her military experience, she often stressed that she was the "only candidate who can win" against McConnell, who has represented Kentucky in the Senate for over three decades.

McGrath follows in the mold of a handful of freshmen Democratic women with national security experience who helped flip Republican House of Representatives seats in 2018. She spent 20 years in the Marines, flying 89 combat missions.

She faces an uphill battle against McConnell, said Nathan Gonzales, editor of Inside Elections, which provides nonpartisan analysis of campaigns.

"McGrath was a long shot before the competitive primary and is a long shot now that it's over," Gonzalez said, noting that Beshear's victory came in a three-way race in which a Libertarian Party candidate, John Hicks, also won votes.

Kentucky is a conservative state that voted for Trump by 30 percentage points in 2016.

Republicans' majority of 53 to 47 seats in the U.S. Senate is looking increasingly vulnerable in the Nov. 3 election, according to political analysts.

McConnell campaign spokeswoman Kate Cooksey said in a statement that "Extreme Amy McGrath is lucky to have gotten out of the primary with a victory," and called McGrath "just another tool of the Washington Democratic establishment who has no idea what matters most to Kentuckians."

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell and Richard Cowan; Editing by Scott Malone, Sonya Hepinstall, Bernadette Baum, Jonathan Oatis and David Gregorio)

06/30/2020 22:29

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