Mitch McConnell defeats Democrat Amy McGrath to keep his seat in the Senate

Morgan Watkins
 
| Louisville Courier Journal

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Sen. Mitch McConnell reelected in Kentucky despite Democrats’ efforts

In a closely watched race, the Republican Senator was reelected despite a strong push by Democrats nationwide to replace him.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday night won his seventh straight congressional race, defeating Democrat and retired Marine Amy McGrath and dashing the hopes of liberals nationwide who wanted Kentucky voters to drop their longtime senator.

The Associated Press called the race for McConnell at 8:02 p.m.

McGrath was a fundraising powerhouse whose campaign raked in around $90 million — over $30 million more than McConnell amassed. And that’s no small feat since the senator is a legendary fundraiser in his own right.

But big bucks weren’t enough to defeat the ultimate Kentucky incumbent, who has built up a ton of power and influence on Capitol Hill and in the commonwealth over the past 36 years.

McConnell has been on a decades-long winning streak in Kentucky, where he won two terms as Jefferson County judge-executive before squeaking out an unexpected victory against a Democratic incumbent in his first Senate campaign in 1984.

Since then, Kentuckians have repeatedly reelected him to Congress every six years. And on Tuesday, a majority of the commonwealth’s voters decided to do that once again.  

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McGrath hoped to pull off an upset Tuesday night and met with voters throughout the state as she worked hard to make the case to Kentuckians that McConnell hasn’t done enough to help them and has instead used his power primarily to benefit himself and special interests. 

She also courted conservative voters who are fans of President Donald Trump but who don’t like McConnell much in hopes of getting them to vote for her — a tactic that attracted a lot of skepticism because of how divisively partisan America is right now.

Meanwhile, McConnell continually portrayed McGrath as a radical Democrat even after state Rep. Charles Booker, a more progressive candidate, came close to beating her in the June primary. 

Team Mitch hammered that point constantly, putting out campaign ads and statements tying her to leading Democrats like Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and telling Kentuckians McGrath would rubber-stamp super-liberal policies if she got elected.

McGrath pushed back hard against McConnell’s attempts to make her seem hyperpartisan.

She often said she doesn’t care if someone’s wearing “a red jersey or a blue jersey” — she’s willing to work with members of both parties to get important priorities accomplished.

“Mitch McConnell’s going to want to try to put me in a box,” she told The Courier Journal in the final weeks of her campaign. “Let’s get back to people who will do what’s right for this country and Kentucky. That’s what I’m all about.”

The race boiled down to whether Kentuckians were content to keep McConnell in charge.

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The senator largely stuck to a script that worked well for him in past races by endlessly emphasizing how he lets Kentucky “punch above its weight” on Capitol Hill in ways a freshman senator couldn’t.

This was McConnell’s first reelection bid since he became Senate majority leader in 2015, so the race was, to some degree, a referendum on his performance in that role. 

The power he holds in that position strengthened his well-worn argument about the influence Kentucky is able to wield by keeping him in Congress. And he also made his successful effort, as majority leader, to transform the federal judiciary by working with Trump to confirm over 200 federal judges another cornerstone of his campaign.

Conservatives celebrated that achievement as a victory that could last generations, and McConnell’s push to confirm U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett — Trump’s third nominee to the nation’s top court — before Election Day bolstered that part of his reelection pitch.

McGrath tried to counter McConnell’s arguments about how his power and influence benefits the commonwealth by underlining the ways in which Kentuckians are still struggling economically and physically even though they’re represented by the country’s most powerful senator.

“Sen. McConnell likes to talk about Kentucky punching above its weight. Here in Kentucky, we know we feel like we’ve been sucker punched,” she said during the only debate she had with him, citing the state’s high rates of health issues like cancer and relatively low wages as examples.

The COVID-19 pandemic added an unexpected dimension to the race, and both candidates spoke about it often this year as America’s coronavirus death toll kept rising. 

McConnell emphasized the work he did to shepherd the roughly $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act through Congress with bipartisan support in March, which he said funneled over $13 billion in federal assistance to Kentucky. 

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But McGrath slammed McConnell for refusing to compromise with Democrats in order to pass another round of coronavirus relief in recent months. McConnell, in turn, blamed congressional Democrats for the federal government’s failure to approve a new aid package. 

This race attracted attention and donations from people nationwide, and there was a lot of speculation McGrath might be able to beat McConnell not only in fundraising but also at the polls.

However, political experts said McConnell had the upper hand in part because Kentucky has become increasingly conservative over time and because Trump, who’s quite popular in the state, also was on the ballot. (They said pro-Trump voters weren’t likely to back a Democrat for senator.)

McConnell didn’t coast to victory, though. He and his campaign repeatedly promoted a narrative about how effectively he has wielded his power as majority leader to advance conservative goals and deliver federal dollars to Kentucky.

And in the final week before Election Day, he held rallies around the state where he called for Kentucky voters to unite against Democrats’ “radicalism” and decried the “coastal snobbishness” of liberals living on America’s East and West coasts.

“This is a hard-left, radical party looking down their noses at all of us in what they call flyover country,” he said at his final rally Monday.

McConnell and McGrath duked it out on the campaign trail for more than a year — a hard-fought contest in the national spotlight that culminated in the senator’s victory Tuesday night. He gets to keep his job as Kentucky’s senior senator for another six years.

Whether he’ll remain majority leader next year though, depends on whether the Democrats are able to win enough seats in other Senate battles around the country to wrest control of that congressional chamber from the GOP.

It wasn’t clear, as of 8 p.m. Tuesday, what the final results of all those races will be. 

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