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Kentucky Senate primary pits establishment favorite against progressive insurgent

The Kentucky Senate primary Tuesday is shaping up to be more competitive than expected in the Democratic race that will decide who takes on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in November. Former Marine Amy McGrath has raked in strong fundraising and picked up the endorsement of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. But State Representative Charles Booker has been gathering more support in recent weeks, after participating in protests against police brutality and racial violence in his native Louisville.

In just the past week, Booker has been endorsed by former Democratic presidential candidates Julian Castro, Tom Steyer, and Senator Elizabeth Warren, who had previously supported McGrath. The new endorsements follow others by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Senator Bernie Sanders, and the Louisville Courier-Journal. 

A spokesperson for Booker's campaign makes the case that while McGrath has higher name recognition than Booker from her run for a House seat in 2018, she lacks a passionate base of voters. The spokesperson also argued that McGrath is making a mistake by trying to appeal to more moderate voters, dismissing it as a strategy of "pretend to be a lighter version of a Republican and hope that carries." Nonetheless, a McGrath spokesperson told CBS News that her campaign had three internal polls ending June 19 that all showed her leading the primary race by double digits.

McGrath has unleashed an ad blitz in recent weeks highlighting her Kentucky roots and making the case for how she'll fight to get McConnell out of office, while McConnell is answering her with ads calling her "Extreme Amy McGrath." 

Meanwhile, Booker has launched two ads against McGrath. The first ad, "On the Ground," takes a soundbite from a recent debate where McGrath says she has not participated in protests, and then shows Booker with a megaphone at a protest. The second one, called "Real Democrat," says Kentucky needs a real Democrat, one who will fight for Kentuckians "and not help just Trump get his way," as he implies McGrath would.

Any Democrat would face an uphill battle in trying to defeat McConnell, even though the Senate majority leader is unpopular in his own state. The state remains solidly Republican — President Trump won Kentucky by over 30 points in 2016. In 2014, when McConnell faced Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, he defeated her by 16 percentage points.

McGrath is making the case that she can pull moderate Republicans and women voters to her side, while Booker is arguing for energizing new and more diverse voters. The outcome of the primary on Tuesday may reveal some insights about the most effective strategy or taking on McConnell in November.  

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