Amid all of the grilling and fireworks, you may have missed a development that could fundamentally impact the fight for the Senate majority this fall: Amy McGrath beat Charles Booker to win the Kentucky Democratic primary.
What!?, you say. Mitch McConnell isn’t going to lose this fall!
Which, in the main, is probably right! McConnell is a very able politician. It’s how he has won six(!) times in Kentucky and is currently the most influential Republican – aside from President Donald Trump – in Washington.
But McGrath doesn’t need to beat McConnell to reshape the Senate map. All she has to do is be competitive enough that she a) keeps McConnell focused on his own race and b) forces him (and, potentially, the national Republican Party) to spend time and money ensuring that the Republican leader wins.
While Booker, the youngest black Kentucky lawmaker at 35 years old, got the lion’s share of positive press attention in the final weeks of the primary race, there was a reason that Senate Democrats’ campaign arm had endorsed McGrath’s candidacy in February: Because she is a remarkably strong fundraiser.
She raised more than $8 million in 2018 in a losing big for House against Rep. Andy Barr in the 6th Congressional District. (McGrath became a viral sensation thanks to her kickoff video in that race – produced by Democratic ad whiz Mark Putnam – that highlighted her military background.)
And, as of June 3, McGrath had raised $41 million for her Senate campaign – and had more than $19 million left in her bank account as of that date. That’s $4 million more than McConnell had on hand at the same time. (McConnell has raised more than $32 million for the race so far.)
Now, it’s worth noting here that McGrath is a less able campaigner than she is a fundraiser. As noted above, she didn’t beat Barr in 2018 – despite that being a very good year to be a Democratic challenger. And, given the massive fundraising disparity between her and Booker, you would have anticipated McGrath winning by a far larger margin than she did.
National Democrats won’t likely admit it, publicly at least, but they aren’t likely terribly concerned about McGrath’s uneven performance on the campaign trail against McConnell as long as she can keep raising tens of millions of dollars to attack the Senate Majority Leader between now and November. Because if she can raise, let’s say, $80 million total, then McConnell and the national Republican Party apparatus are also going to have to spend heavily to ensure he wins again – despite the clear Republican lean of the state at the federal level. (The last Democrat to win a Senate race in Kentucky was Sen. Wendell Ford back in 1992.)
And this is where strategy comes in. Remember that the amount of money – via national parties and super PACS – that will be spent on the battle for the Senate is finite. Let’s, for the sake of explaining how this works, say there is $200 million that Republican committees and super PACs have to spend on all of the Senate races in the country this fall. (The actual number is likely to be much, MUCH higher than that.)
McConnell, because he is not only the most powerful Republican in the Senate but also because he raised tens of millions for the party and its related super PACs (of which the major one is staffed by longtime McConnell allies), will get as much money from these groups as he needs to win. So, let’s say that $20 million gets spent on the Kentucky race to make sure that McConnell is insulated from the TV ad onslaught that McGrath’s fundraising can buy.
Well, that’s $20 million that can’t be spent on trying to reelect Arizona Sen. Martha McSally. Or Maine Sen. Susan Collins. Or North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis. Or Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler. You get the idea.
And then there’s this to consider: If McConnell, the best fundraiser among Senate Republicans, is focused on raising money for his own reelection race, he can’t raise as much money for all of those senators I just named above. Ditto for if he is pinned down in Kentucky rather than traveling across the country for events to collect cash for the most vulnerable GOP incumbents.
That’s a BIG deal. And likely would not have been the case if Booker managed to topple McGrath in the primary.
Winning, when it comes to McConnell, isn’t necessarily the goal for Senate Democrats as they try to net the three seats (if Joe Biden wins the White House) or four (if he doesn’t) they need for the majority. Senate Democrats don’t need Kentucky to get to the majority. In fact, there are roughly a dozen GOP seats that would likely fall before McConnell loses.
Instead, keeping McConnell occupied on his own race has to be Democrats’ goal. And McGrath makes that much more likely.