Jun 23, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Voters head to the polls for key primaries in Kentucky and New York

People wear face masks and practice social distancing as they prepare to vote in New York in the primary elections

Brooklyn Museum polling site, June 23, New York City. Photo: Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images

Primary elections initially delayed by the coronavirus are taking place on Tuesday in North Carolina, Virginia, Mississippi, Kentucky and New York.

The big picture: Establishment-backed candidates have been pitted against progressive challengers in several of the Democratic congressional primaries being held Tuesday — including one race that could see the powerful chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee unseated after 16 terms in Congress.

  • The primaries will be held against the backdrop of ongoing anti-racism protests and a coronavirus outbreak that is still accelerating in many states.
  • Due to the high number of absentee ballots cast as a result of the pandemic, the winners of close races may not be known for several days.

Races to watch

In Kentucky, state Rep. Charles Booker and retired Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath are vying for the opportunity to challenge Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell this November.

  • The Democratic primary comes as Kentucky continues to grapple with the aftermath of the police killing of Louisville EMT Breonna Taylor, which has sparked mass protests within the state and across the country.
  • Booker, a progressive and one of five black men running for U.S. Senate in the South, has gained serious momentum by actively engaging with the community and taking a leadership role in the protests against Taylor's death, according to NPR. Booker has secured high-profile endorsements from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
  • McGrath, meanwhile, is the establishment favorite and has out-raised McConnell thanks in part to her strong out-of-state support. The race was originally seen as hers to lose, but it could be tight with Booker's late surge.

In New York, House Foreign Affairs Chair Eliot Engel is facing a formidable challenge from former middle school principal Jamaal Bowman, one of several progressive insurgents taking on a powerful incumbent.

  • Engel has represented New York since 1989, but he may be one of the House Democratic caucus' most endangered members. He received an endorsement from Hillary Clinton on Monday, her first one for any incumbent facing a primary challenger in 2020, per the New York Times. He has also been endorsed by New York Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.
  • Bowman has earned endorsements from Sanders, Warren, Ocasio-Cortez and dozens of powerful progressive groups.
  • House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler, House Oversight Chair Carolyn Maloney and Rep. Yvette Clarke face New York primary challenges on Tuesday as well.

Worth noting: Ocasio-Cortez and former CNBC anchor Michelle Caruso-Cabrera are also facing off in AOC's first primary since ousting 10-term incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley in 2018 — viewed by many as the biggest upset of the 2018 midterms.

The state of play: More than 700,000 New York City residents have requested absentee ballots, according to the New York Times.

  • Kentucky typically has 3,700 polling places open on election day, but that number has been cut to 170 due to coronavirus concerns — prompting an outcry from voting rights activists, CNN reports.
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