Two African-Americans seized the momentum in recent weeks as the nation grappled with the question of racial justice and hoped it would propel them to upset victories in Democratic primaries on Tuesday — one in Kentucky and the other in New York.
Charles Booker, a state legislator, is challenging retired Marine Corps fighter pilot Amy McGrath, a top recruit of national Democrats, for the chance to wage a long-shot bid against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Jamaal Bowman, a former middle school principal, is facing longtime incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who was elected to the House in 1988.
Both Booker and Bowman ran to the left of their more moderate opponents and have been embraced by the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, including securing endorsements from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
It was unclear whether either race would be decided Tuesday night, as the states received significantly more mail-in ballots than normal because of the coronavirus pandemic. Both primaries were postponed from earlier dates because of the public health crisis.
The performance of Booker and Bowman will be one of the first real-world indicators of how deeply the national reckoning on race has resonated with voters nearly a month after the death of George Floyd, a black man killed in police custody. Both candidates have criticized their top opponents for not prioritizing issues that directly affect black communities.
In Kentucky’s most populous cities, Louisville and Lexington, Booker seemed to have all the momentum.
Jeremy Horton, 50, a filmmaker, said he was supporting Booker and challenged the notion that you have to be a conservative Democrat to win Kentucky statewide.
“Mitch McConnell, he’s a monster campaigner. And it’s going to be an uphill battle for anybody. But people vote for conviction over policy,” Horton said. “You can’t beat momentum and a good storm. Amy McGrath has run a strong fundraising campaign. But that only takes you so far.”
Booker, born and raised in the poorest area of Louisville, rose as a natural leader for the city as it grieved and protested the death of Breonna Taylor, a black medical technician who was killed by police in her home. Booker, who says Taylor was a family friend, spoke passionately at those demonstrations about his own lived experience with generational poverty and racial injustice.
A race that was supposed to be a sure thing for McGrath, who had raised $41 million to take on McConnell, became immensely competitive in the final weeks. While Booker seized a moment tailor-made for his message, McGrath stumbled and struggled to explain why it took her weeks to show up at one of the protests.
Because Booker’s rise came so late in the race, he may have lost out on potential voters who cast their ballots early, either by mail or in person. Voting on Election Day was also less convenient than in previous years, with polling locations reduced from the usual 3,700 to fewer than 200 due to a shortage of poll workers amid the pandemic.
Julie Heinz, 27, voted in person because she said she’d kept putting off requesting an absentee ballot. She voted for Booker, whom she said she thinks has a good chance of winning, but said she’ll support McGrath if he doesn’t.
“I’d vote for day-old roadkill over Mitch McConnell,” she said. “At least day-old roadkill can feed a family of four.”
In the north Bronx and southern Westchester County, Bowman is seeking to replicate Ocasio-Cortez’s success two years ago when she unseated the fourth-ranked Democrat, Joseph Crowley.
Bowman repeatedly hit Engel over his absence from New York as the coronavirus ravaged the city. But Bowman started getting a more serious look after Engel was caught on a hot mic during a news conference, urging organizers to let him speak about Floyd’s death and protests, saying, “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.”
At a polling location in the east Bronx, 21-year-old Dacia Sue, a first-timer voter, said she was motivated to vote for Bowman in part because of Engel’s comment.
“For him to say that the Black Lives Movement, like that if he didn’t have ... a primary right now, he wouldn’t care, it’s, like, surprising to me. It’s, like, all right, just for you to say that out loud is crazy,” Sue said. “So I was like, yeah, I’m just gonna vote against you.”
Among the other races Tuesday, Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., faced a primary opponent, Todd McMurtry, who for a time seemed to have a shot after President Trump repudiated Massie and suggested he should be thrown out of the GOP. The criticism stemmed from Massie forcing more than half the House to return to Washington for a voice vote on the $2 trillion Cares Act amid health warnings that lawmakers should steer clear of gathering in large numbers.
Reps. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., a senior member of GOP leadership, and Michael Turner, R-Ohio, donated to McMurtry’s campaign as a sign of revolt against Massie, whose libertarian ways have often irked national security hawks such as Cheney and Turner.
But they soon retracted their endorsements and demanded refunds when Massie’s campaign unearthed old McMurtry tweets that were racist and demeaning toward Mexicans and transgender people.
Trump never spoke of Massie again, staying neutral in the race and giving the four-term lawmaker breathing room despite the late March controversy.
Voters in New York are also picking a replacement for former Rep. Chris Collins, a Republican, who was found guilty of 26 counts of insider trading. Voters in North Carolina were choosing a Republican nominee for the seat left vacant by Rep. Mark Meadows, a Republican, who left to become Trump’s chief of staff.