A voter fills out her ballot during the Kentucky Primary at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville, Ky., Tuesday, June 23…
A voter fills out her ballot during the Kentucky Primary at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville, Ky., June 23, 2020.

Voters headed to the polls in three U.S. states Tuesday, deciding a too-close-to-call Senate Democratic primary contest in the southern state of Kentucky for a spot to face Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in November, and a contentious Democratic primary challenge to longtime Congressman Eliot Engel in New York. 

In the Kentucky race, polls indicate a tight race between former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath, who narrowly lost a 2018 bid for a seat in the House of Representatives, and Charles Booker, a 35-year-old state lawmaker.  

To combat the fears about the spread of the coronavirus, the state’s biggest city, Louisville, with 600,000 residents, had only one polling place open — at the state fairgrounds. But dozens of voting stations were available at the site, and lines of voters seemed to be moving quickly at midday.  

Poll workers wearing face shields assist a voter as he checks in to cast his vote in the Kentucky primary at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville, Ky., June 23, 2020.

In a bipartisan agreement between a Republican election official and Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, all registered Kentucky voters had the option to vote by mail, and many did. More than 883,000 ballots were requested, and more than 452,000 were sent in by Monday afternoon. 

McGrath was the early favorite and raised $41 million in campaign funds, while earning the endorsement of Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. But Booker, who raised less than $4 million, has closed the gap, receiving his own endorsements from key newspapers in the state, as well as national progressive figures, including senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. 

Booker, an African American, has struck a chord with voters angered at police treatment of Black Americans. 

While national attention has focused on the May 25 death of George Floyd while in police custody, which has sparked continuing coast-to-coast protests, the focus in Kentucky has been on the March police shooting death of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African American emergency medical technician. 

Taylor was killed by Louisville police executing a no-knock search warrant for drugs at her apartment. But police had the wrong address, and no drugs were found.  

On the campaign trail, Booker has worn a T-shirt saying, “No More No Knocks.” At one stop, he told voters, “I’m traveling Kentucky talking about structural racism, and I’m seeing folks, even 99% white, putting their fists in the air because they know that we can’t let this moment pass.” 

Tuesday’s winner faces a tough contest against 78-year-old McConnell, a fixture in Kentucky and the Washington power structure. McConnell has been a staunch supporter of President Donald Trump’s legislative proposals and his appointment of conservative judges. Moreover, the president is popular in Kentucky, which he won by about 30 percentage points in 2016.  

In New York

In Tuesday’s other key race, 73-year-old Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is also facing a late challenge from Jamaal Bowman, a 44-year-old middle school principal who has never run for office.

Congressman Eliot Engel addresses media after casting votes in primary elections, in the Riverdale section of New York, June 23, 2020.

Much like Booker, Bowman, an African American, is advancing more leftist policies, hoping to unseat Engel, who has been in Congress for 16 terms. Engel has the endorsements of key Washington figures, including Schumer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who lost the 2016 election to Trump.   

But New York progressives have lined up behind Bowman, including Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who herself won an upset primary election victory against an entrenched New York congressman in 2018.  

Democratic congressional candidate Jamaal Bowman, right, bumps elbows with a voter outside a voting site in Ardsley, N.Y., June 23, 2020.

In a normally solid Republican congressional district in western New York state, Democrat Nate McMurray and Republican Chris Jacobs are vying to finish the last of the two-year term vacated when Republican Chris Collins resigned after pleading guilty to federal insider stock trading charges. No matter who wins, McMurray and Jacobs are likely to face each other again in November for a full two-year House term.  

Other races

There also are party primaries for six congressional seats in Kentucky and another 26 House primaries in New York besides the Engel-Bowman race.  

In the mid-Atlantic state of Virginia, there are seven party primaries for House seats, along with a Republican party primary for the Senate nomination to face two-term incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Warner in the November election.  

The three Republicans vying to face Warner are civics teacher Alissa Baldwin, Army intelligence officer Thomas Speciale, and Daniel Gade, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who lost his right leg in a 2004 firefight in Iraq and is currently a professor at American University in Washington.