Progressives hoping for big wins in Tuesday's Democratic primaries

Charles Booker may be surging in Kentucky's Senate race — and another veteran Democrat could lose in New York.

Published June 23, 2020 5:00AM (EDT)

Voting booths in polling place (Getty Images/Hill Street Studios)
Voting booths in polling place (Getty Images/Hill Street Studios)

Democratic primary votes will be counted Tuesday in three states — Kentucky, New York and Virginia. Here's a preview of the most notable contests, including a handful where progressive candidates stand to make inroads on Capitol Hill.

The Virginia primaries — which in addition to local races cover a handful of U.S. House districts and Sen. Mark Warner's unopposed re-election bid — promises to be the tamest of the group, with the only recent major news being the state Republican Party cutting loose Rep. Denver Riggleman because he presided over a same-sex wedding.

In 2018, Riggleman made headlines for posting Bigfoot erotica to social media.

Kentucky and New York, however, carry a few intriguing narratives, the most high-profile currently being rumbles of "voter suppression" in Kentucky, a situation that appears muddled by misinformation.

Recent alarm broadcast by celebrities such as LeBron James and Jennifer Lawrence, as well as national political figures such as Stacey Abrams and Hillary Clinton, have overshadowed what local reports say is the truth on the ground: that Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear's push to expand mail-in ballots statewide have put Kentucky on pace for record turnout.

Some local analysts believe that the strand of outrage generated by suppression scare-mongering would most likely work in favor of Democratic Senate candidate Charles Booker, a Black progressive with a Bernie Sanders-style platform whose recent surge has attracted national attention.

Booker — a popular state senator and millennial from Louisville's poorest zip code — is up against Amy McGrath, a former combat pilot and political moderate who was handpicked by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to take on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in November. 

It's unlikely that either Democrat could unseat the powerful 35-year Senate veteran, but Booker has lately seen his chances improve against McGrath, who netted millions in early contributions, many from out-of-state, largely because of name recognition generated after nearly upsetting Republican incumbent Rep. Andy Barr in 2018.

Though McGrath still styles herself as the presumptive nominee, she has a few things working against her. First, she has squandered much of the goodwill she had built up with left-leaning liberals and progressives in 2018, after declaring her willingness to work with President Trump and saying that she would have voted to confirm Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. (She later walked that back.)

Additionally, Kentucky was viscerally affected by the racial justice movement that swept the country in the wake of the death of George Floyd in police custody.

In March, Louisville police shot Breonna Taylor in her apartment, and the protest action in Louisville — Booker's hometown — put the state, and the candidate, square in the center of a worldwide story. Booker has seized the moment, pushing a "from the hood to the holler" campaign that aims to unite Kentuckians struggling in cities and rural pockets alike behind progressive ideals.

New York will feature a number of notable races, including the first primary renomination test for precocious progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

AOC knows the ropes, however, having shot to national fame with her 2018 primary upset over Rep. Joe Crowley, a longtime incumbent and caucus leader once thought to be a contender for House speaker when Nancy Pelosi retires.

Her principal primary opponent, former CNBC host and ex-Republican Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, has raised about $2 million, but Ocasio-Cortez enjoys national name recognition and one of the largest war chests in Congress, at $10.5 million.

In a virtual debate earlier this month, Caruso-Cabrera called Ocasio-Cortez "a polarizing, divisive force," criticizing her for being the lone House Democrat to vote against the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package.

Ocasio-Cortez pointed out that she had fought for other versions of coronavirus relief and only voted in opposition because she found the "half a trillion dollars in Wall Street giveaways" unpalatable for her heavily minority, heavily immigrant district in Queens and the Bronx.

"I have always fought for these issues. I am not new to these issues. I ran on them in 2018," she said.

A few miles north lies New York's 16th district, which wraps the working-class North Bronx up with Westchester County bedroom communities, a district whose diversity is reflected in its primary ballot, where Black progressive Jamaal Bowman, a high school teacher, is challenging 16-term incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The hot ballot has drawn the attention of high-profile progressives, including Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who have all endorsed Bowman. Hillary Clinton leads a pack of establishment Democrats who support Engel. It is shaping up to be a close vote.

The twin retirements of veteran Rep. José Serrano in the South Bronx and Rep. Nita Lowey in the Westchester and Rockland suburbs have drawn crowded fields, with more than a half-dozen hopefuls vying for the nomination in each seat.

Serrano is stepping down after three decades serving one of the most heavily Latino districts in the nation. The nomination will most likely go to one of two New York City Council members, who stand in remarkable contrast: Rubén Díaz Sr., a right-wing, openly anti-gay Pentecostal preacher; and 32-year-old Ritchie Torres, a progressive who is gay.

In Lowey's district in the northern suburbs, Adam Schleifer, the heir to a pharmaceutical fortune, has outspent the field, but a recent poll shows him trailing progressive Mondaire Jones, a former Obama Justice Department employee who won endorsements from Sanders and Warren. Jones, should he be elected in the fall, would become the first openly gay Black member of Congress. The district's establishment nominee — Evelyn Farkas, a former Pentagon official in the Obama administration — is polling third.

New York will also hold a special election in the 27th district, in the state's western stretches between Buffalo and Rochester, to replace Chris Collins, the first Republican congressman to endorse Trump in 2016, who was forced to resign last year following an insider trading scandal.

The special election will decide who holds Collins' seat from now until November, when the seat will be decided again in the general election.

From here, Republican contender Chris Jacobs appears to have a lock on the reliably red, largely rural district, which Trump took by about 25 points in 2016. In a special election quirk, Jacobs will on Tuesday face not only a Democratic challenger for the temporary seat — progressive Nate McMurray — but must also fight off two Republicans in a primary for the right to run again in November.

No matter how the special election shakes out Tuesday, McMurray will be the Democratic nominee going into the fall.

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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