At left, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is seen. At center, Amy McGrath is a Democrat hoping to challenge McConnell in the fall, but she faces a Democratic primary opponent from Charles Booker, at right.
CNN  — 

As primary day approaches in Kentucky, Democratic Senate candidate Amy McGrath is suddenly fighting a political battle on two fronts.

Long viewed as a lock to win the party’s nomination and take on Republican Senate Majority Mitch McConnell in November, McGrath, one of the most prodigious fundraisers in any down-ballot 2020 race, has increasingly turned her attention to progressive primary rival Charles Booker, a Kentucky state representative gaining momentum – and national attention – as early voting begins.

Powerful forces in the party, including Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, are behind McGrath. But Booker is rising as the political landscape has rapidly changed, shaped by the nationwide uprising against racism and police brutality, and a pandemic that has disproportionally hurt minorities and the poor. Booker, the youngest black Kentucky lawmaker at 35 years old, comes from one of the state’s poorest zip codes and has argued that his perspective is uniquely suited to the times. His campaign has attracted a late groundswell of support from progressives across the country, including endorsements from figures like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“Because this moment of racial tension is so high, because we are dealing with a pandemic, I think more people are being forced to look at the reality of the challenges we’re facing,” Booker told CNN this week. “And when they look and they ask who’s leading and helping to build the coalition to move us forward, they keep seeing me – and it’s only because I keep showing up.”

Booker is still considered an underdog in the race. McGrath has raised over $40 million, an astonishing figure, and commands the support of the Senate Democratic campaign arm, a number of labor unions, and others who are drawn to her background as a former fighter pilot who flew in combat for the Marines Corps. Her supporters note that her moderate views are more in alignment with Kentucky’s traditional electorate than Booker’s.

“Amy McGrath has a powerful grassroots campaign and a broad coalition of support across Kentucky that have made her the strongest candidate to defeat Mitch McConnell in November,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesperson Stewart Boss.

But Booker has countered by arguing that those groups are underestimating his candidacy and not adequately addressing the concerns of many in Kentucky who, as seen during the sweeping 2019 teachers’ strikes, have become increasingly angry with the powers-that-be across party lines.

In pressing his case, Booker has labeled McGrath a “pro-Trump Democrat.” In an interview, she rejected the accusation, calling it a “lie.” Booker is also attempting to lump together McGrath and McConnell, arguing that, for all their differences, both benefit from an environment of political discord – one Booker says he is better equipped to help fix.

“One of the ways that I am able to do that as a candidate is by leaning into our common bonds, in helping to break down the silos that Mitch McConnell exploits and weaponizes and folks like Amy McGrath want to dance around and help keep in place in order to win the status quo,” said Booker, who has Type 1 diabetes. “Rationing insulin is not a partisan thing. Poverty is not a partisan thing.”

But his progressive agenda, which includes support for the Green New Deal, a universal basic income and “Medicare for all,” is viewed by many moderate Democratic figures as a liability in a general election in Kentucky and against McConnell, who would face a tough challenge from McGrath and her campaign’s fundraising machine, according to public polling. The race has few reliable public surveys for either the primary or the general.

McConnell’s campaign offered a brief glimpse of what Booker might expect to see if he wins the primary back in January, when it ran a Facebook ad featuring Booker alongside Ocasio-Cortez, with the tagline: “Stop AOC’s candidate.”

Best candidate or strategic diversion

One Kentucky Democratic official said that while McGrath is still likely to become the nominee, she has to date been a lackluster candidate, which is helping Booker generate new interest and “fairly significant crowds” in recent days.

“She really hasn’t generated much enthusiasm,” the Kentucky Democratic official said, adding McGrath has failed to generate any real “personal excitement” in part because of her stilted performances on the campaign trail.

McGrath stumbled at the onset of her campaign last year, flip-flopping on whether she would back Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court – ultimately saying she would have voted against it – and seemed to suggest in an MSNBC interview that she would be more effective than McConnell in implementing the Trump agenda. McGrath modified those remarks, too, though they have dogged her in the closing days of the primary.

“She’s never lived that down,” the Kentucky Democratic official said.

Since entering the race last summer, McGrath has outraised McConnell and eliminated his cash-on-hand advantage, an especially impressive feat for a challenger in a state that hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since the reelection of Wendell Ford in 1992 and gave Trump a 30-point victory in 2016. She has already spent nearly $14 million on advertising to McConnell’s $6 million, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, while Booker has spent over $1 million.

Republicans are preparing for an extraordinarily expensive challenge. The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC supporting McConnell, the state’s longest-serving senator, has pledged to air nearly $11 million in advertising this fall in support of his sixth reelection bid.

A spokesman for retired Marine Mike Broihier, another Democrat in the race, suggested top Democrats viewed McGrath as less of a legitimate contender to unseat the majority leader than a strategic diversion.

“I don’t know if folks high up in Washington think it’s possible (for McGrath to beat McConnell),” Greg Nasif said. “I think that they’re happy that she’s fundraised so much because if she’s the nominee, it’ll clearly keep Mitch McConnell busy trying to keep up with fundraising.”

Whatever her true prospects, McConnell’s team hasn’t pulled punches when addressing McGrath.

“Not only is Amy McGrath an extreme liberal, she also happens to be a terrible candidate that her own party wants to replace,” McConnell spokeswoman Kate Cooksey told CNN. “No candidate in the history of electoral politics has spent so much to achieve so little.”

During much of the primary, McGrath has focused her campaign on McConnell, trying to portray him as a Washington swamp monster who cares more about Wall Street and special interests than his own constituents. She’s called his response to the coronavirus pandemic slow-footed and misguided, bashing his suggestion that some states should be able to “use the bankruptcy route” rather than receive aid from the federal government. She has also advocated for term limits, a dig at the longest-serving Kentucky senator.

“I think people are really ready to take the fight to Mitch McConnell,” McGrath told CNN in an interview.

Debate on policing shakes up race

Despite McConnell’s attempts to cast McGrath as a lefty extremist, her policy positions are moderate by the standards of today’s Democratic Party – much more closely in line with presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden than Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez. For example, McGrath supports a public option and a Medicare buy-in for those over the age of 55, rather than overhauling the US health care system with a single-payer program.

But in recent weeks, as the national debate over racial injustice escalated in the aftermath of the police killings of George Floyd in Minnesota and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, the Booker campaign has criticized her for not offering a bolder vision.

“If you’d asked us a couple of weeks ago whether there would be any remote chance of her losing the primary, I would have said absolutely not,” said a former Kentucky Democratic official supportive of McGrath. “This is the moment for Booker. I still think she wins, but he’s making it into a race.”

McGrath in an interview shot back at Booker and other progressive critics who have labeled her a “pro-Trump Democrat,” calling the claim a “lie.”

“I have never called myself a pro-Trump Democrat,” McGrath said, adding that she would work with – or stand up to – any president in order “to do what’s right for Kentucky.”

McGrath also responded to Booker’s charge that she was hiding behind her Twitter account and failing to provide leadership, by pointing to her campaign’s recent efforts to expand and protect ballot access. She said that she “cares deeply” about combating voter suppression, noting her campaign joined a lawsuit that secured additional polling places in the state and set up phone and online tools to get people to vote during a pandemic.

But McGrath’s absence early on from anti-racism rallies in Kentucky has also contributed to the notion that the primary could be closer than anyone expected even a month ago. Booker, meanwhile, took a lead role in protests that followed the killing of Taylor, a 26-year-old black emergency technician, who was shot by Louisville police after they mistakenly barged into her home back in March.

Earlier this week, McGrath again came under scrutiny for a new ad in which she discusses watching video of Floyd’s death, saying her “heart broke” as she saw him cry out for his mother, but did not – before turning to criticism of the White House’s threats to use military force against protesters – mention the police.

“It is grossly offensive for anyone to play politics in this moment and to put out messages that don’t even acknowledge the Kentuckians have been snatched away from us, that have been killed by the very agencies that we pay for to protect and serve us,” Booker said. “It is offensive to essentially approach these traumatic and generation-long issues within our community as just something else to make a video about.”

When asked about her decision not to appear at any of the earlier protests, McGrath demurred, instead highlighting those she attended the past couple of weeks: a vigil for Taylor in Louisville, a march in Georgetown, Kentucky, and a recent church discussion on “race and reconciliation.” She also looked ahead to criminal justice reform legislation being debated on Capitol Hill and said “we need to be tackling it in the Senate.”

As the contest draws near, both McGrath and Booker are collecting and highlighting endorsements from across the Democratic firmament. McGrath, despite her troubles, retains the strong support of the DSCC and Schumer, who praised her at a press conference on Tuesday.

“Amy McGrath is our candidate,” Schumer said. “She’s doing very well and I believe that she’ll win the primary and that she’ll give McConnell a run for his money.”

Booker, meanwhile, recently won the backing of the Louisville Courier-Journal’s editorial board and, this week, former Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, the last Democrat to run against McConnell.

“Our country needs extraordinary leaders in order to solve the monumental problems facing us,” Lundergan Grimes said in a statement. “I believe that my friend Charles Booker is one of those leaders.”

McGrath brushed off Lundergan Grimes’ decision, and Booker’s other recent endorsers, returning – as she has from the start – to the centerpiece of her campaign: its potential to unseat McConnell.

“I’m focused on the message that I have had from the very beginning,” she said, “which from day one is: we need somebody to take on Sen. Mitch McConnell, who’s just going to do what’s right for Kentucky and for our country.”

CNN’s Manu Raju, David Wright and Clare Foran contributed to this report.