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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Former Marine Corps pilot Amy McGrath held off a surging state Rep. Charles Booker to win the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in Kentucky on Tuesday, a week after ballots were cast, setting up a big-money showdown with U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in November.

Booker, who won 42.6% of the vote, won Kentucky’s three largest cities — Louisville, Lexington and Bowling Green — but the more liberal voters in those cities weren’t enough. McGrath surrounded Booker, winning victories throughout rural Kentucky to win 45.4% of the vote.

“While each of our experiences are unique, as a woman in the military, I had to repeatedly fight the establishment during my 20-year career,” McGrath wrote Tuesday in a statement declaring victory. “ … A year after showing the country that Kentucky won’t hesitate to replace an incompetent and unpopular incumbent Republican like Matt Bevin, let’s do it one more time.”

Booker conceded the race in an emailed statement shortly after 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, noting that he had only narrowly lost after being a relative unknown when he entered the race. He said that meant Kentucky was ready for “big, bold solutions.”

“From this moment on, let’s take the frustration we feel and commit to fighting for change like never before,” Booker wrote. “Let’s dedicate to the work of beating Mitch, so that we can get him out of the way. Yes, I would love to be your nominee, but know I’m still by your side. Thank you for giving me this opportunity.”

It was an unusual primary. Delayed by a month over concerns about the spread of COVID-19, then conducted largely via absentee ballot, Kentuckians were left waiting a full week after Election Day for results.

McConnell’s campaign greeted the news by saying it was “great to have” McGrath in the general election.

“Extreme Amy McGrath is lucky to have gotten out of the primary with a victory, but her reputation sustained significant damage all across Kentucky,” said Kate Cooksey, McConnell’s spokeswoman. “McGrath is just another tool of the Washington Democratic establishment who has no idea what matters most to Kentuckians.”

The extra month proved pivotal in making the race competitive. Booker’s call for change was embraced by a sweeping political moment after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sparked protests of racial injustice and police violence throughout the country.

Booker was among the protesters in Louisville, allowing a candidate who had struggled to gain traction through much of the campaign to catch the imagination of progressives and peel away people who felt ambivalent about McGrath. She spent more than $21 million in the primary positioning herself as a moderate in preparation for the general election.

With the attention came money for Booker’s campaign and with that money came a final push to whip up support and momentum heading into Election Day. His campaign rented a bus and toured the state, wearing shirts that said “From the Hood to the Holler” as Booker tried to build a statewide coalition.

That coalition never completely formed, crashing into the behemoth of the McGrath campaign and falling short.

McGrath, who officially got into the race in July but spent nearly two years readying for her Senate run, had already raised millions by the time Booker announced in January. She used that money to run ads that implied the race was already between her and McConnell.

Voting by absentee ballot had already started by the time Booker began picking up traction. He had a strong showing among those who voted in-person on Election Day, but those margins quickly shrunk as absentee ballots were counted.

For her part, McGrath played the role of the incumbent — an unusual position for someone who has never won an election. Her massive fundraising machine allowed her to build a professional operation, one that was able to absorb her early mistakes, like saying she would have voted to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh before changing her position hours later.

Her attempts to thread a needle between McConnell and President Donald Trump made her vulnerable in the primary, turning off some of the more progressive supporters who championed McGrath during her 2018 congressional bid. That allowed Booker and Lincoln County farmer Mike Broihier to run ads attacking her as not being a “real Democrat.”

“Don’t tell me all we deserve in this primary is a pro-Trump Democrat,” Booker told a crowd in Pikeville the day before the election. “I don’t even know what that is.”

But McGrath won Pike County and all but a handful of Kentucky’s 120 counties without being pulled to the left. When asked if she was merely clinging to her primary lead on the Monday before Election Day, McGrath was firm.

“No,” She said. “I think we have built a very strong network all around Kentucky of 120 counties that are excited to get rid of Mitch McConnell.”

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)

McGrath now must try to unify the Democratic Party after months of largely ignoring the party’s progressive base. In her victory statement, McGrath congratulated Booker, saying he “amplified the energy and anger of so many who are fed-up with the status quo.”

“We must unify our Democratic family to make that happen, including those who didn’t vote for me in the primary, and I intend, immediately, to start the dialogue necessary to bring us all together in our common cause for the general election,” McGrath wrote. “The differences that separate Democrats are nothing compared to the chasm that exists between us and the politics and actions of Mitch McConnell. He’s destroyed our institutions for far too long.”

Though Booker conceded the race, he took a knock at McGrath in his statement by saying his campaign proved “you don’t have to pretend to be a Republican to run as a Democrat in Kentucky.” He also implied that he would be scrutinizing the results in the days ahead.

“We will push in the coming days to ensure transparency and accountability in our state’s electoral system, because it is essential that every single Kentuckian has faith in our democracy as we go forward,” Booker wrote.

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©2020 Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.)

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