Lots of Drama but Little Certainty in Kentucky and New York Primaries


WASHINGTON — Voters in Kentucky and New York were selecting nominees in extraordinary circumstances on Tuesday, as fears about the coronavirus reduced the number of polling places and led to a surge in absentee balloting that was almost certain to delay the results, possibly for days.

Kentucky Democrats were deciding who would be their nominee against Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, in a race that was testing the power of money against the potency of the grass-roots activism that has sprung up around the Black Lives Matter movement.

Amy McGrath, a former Marine pilot who raised well over $40 million, was dominating the primary for months until state Representative Charles Booker roared into contention in recent weeks. His candidacy was lifted by the energy that rose up in response to the killing of Louisville’s Breonna Taylor and other unarmed black Americans by white police officers.

But even as voters turned out at a reduced number of polling stations in Kentucky, New York and Virginia, it was unclear when the party nominees would be known. With the coronavirus prompting officials to lead an aggressive push for absentee voting, the final results of the race were not expected for days. So in a close race, it may not be clear who won on Tuesday night or even Wednesday.

Indeed, The Associated Press, which traditionally calls races for many news organizations, said the Senate contest in Kentucky was among the dozens of races in the state in which it did not declare winners on Tuesday. Because of the delays caused by the virus, the A.P. said the state did not expect to release additional results until June 30 and it would not call any winners until then.

There were, however, a handful of contests where the results were decisive, most notably, and embarrassingly for President Trump, in the western North Carolina House seat left open by the resignation of Mark Meadows, who became Mr. Trump’s chief of staff.

Mr. Meadows preferred a friend of his, real estate developer Lynda Bennett, and had Mr. Trump endorse her and even record an automated call on her behalf. But Ms. Bennett was routed in Tuesday’s runoff by a 24-year-old political newcomer, Madison Cawthorn.


Mr. Trump’s Twitter tirade this spring against Representative Thomas Massie, Republican of Kentucky, who forced the House back into session during the pandemic, also did little to slow Mr. Massie, who easily won renomination.

In New York City, Representatives Jerrold Nadler, the chair of the high-profile House Judiciary Committee, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had both faced primaries. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez easily won her race, according to the A.P., and Mr. Nadler led his competition by a wide margin on Tuesday evening.

In Virginia, the most hotly-contested House primary illustrated the appeal in this moment of black candidates in racially diverse districts. Cameron Webb, an African-American doctor and former White House fellow, routed a handful of white opponents to capture the Democratic nomination in a conservative-leaning district where Republicans just ousted their incumbent, Representative Denver Riggleman, in a nominating convention.

For the most part, though, Tuesday marked the latest example of how the pandemic has turned election night into Election Week.

Absentee ballots in New York are not fully counted until a week after the election. And those ballots could represent about half of all votes cast in the primary.

The race drawing much of the attention in New York was the contest between Representative Eliot L. Engel, the veteran congressman from the Bronx, and Jamaal Bowman, an insurgent candidate backed by many of the Democrats’ most outspoken progressives.

Mr. Engel, fighting for his political life, countered Mr. Bowman by rolling out endorsements from party leaders, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton.

Like Mr. Booker, Mr. Bowman is an African-American attempting to build a multiracial coalition of white liberals and voters of color that could prove formidable if replicated by other nonwhite candidates.

In Kentucky, fewer than 200 polling places were opened on Tuesday, a drastic reduction from the 3,700 locations that are often used in a typical election year. Absentee ballot requests soared in the state’s two largest cities, Louisville and Lexington. Yet a number of jurisdictions have indicated that on Tuesday they will only tabulate votes cast that day, or those cast that day combined with those cast during in-person early voting.

That would mean that potentially hundreds of thousands of absentee votes would not be counted until after Tuesday evening.

Mr. Booker was expected to run up a large margin in Louisville, his hometown and the largest city in the state, so the question was whether Ms. McGrath could overcome that advantage in more rural areas of eastern and western Kentucky.

Working in her favor is the nature of voting in the coronavirus age: Ms. McGrath banked a number of ballots from voters well before Mr. Booker’s late surge.

Whoever wins the Senate primary in Kentucky will face an uphill fight against Mr. McConnell in a state President Trump carried by nearly 30 points four years ago.

The contest between Ms. McGrath and Mr. Booker had also become a test of whether national Democratic leaders like Senator Chuck Schumer, who coronated Ms. McGrath last year, can maintain their hold over the party in a moment of growing progressive energy.

Political calculations have been altered in recent weeks as the nation reels from protests that erupted following the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis on Memorial Day. The intensity of those demonstrations, and calls for a national debate on race and law enforcement, has helped elevate some black candidates.

In a speech to supporters on Tuesday night, Mr. Bowman, a middle-school principal from Yonkers, spoke out against poverty, racism and sexism, among other social ills, “a system that’s literally killing us.” He said, if elected, he would be a “black man with power.”

“That is what Donald Trump is afraid of,” said Mr. Bowman, who held a significant lead over Mr. Engel as early returns rolled in, adding: “I cannot wait to get to Congress and cause problems.”

The liberal wave that swept Ms. Ocasio-Cortez into Congress in 2018 has continued to swell in New York, with primary candidates — usually younger, more idealistic, and less prone to to engage in pragmatic politics — emerging to challenge the Democratic establishment.

One after another, other left-wing challengers took on New York incumbents, including Representative Gregory Meeks, the chairman of the Queens Democratic Party; Representative Yvette Clarke, who faced a slew of upstart candidates in Brooklyn; and Representative Carolyn Maloney, who represents parts of three New York City boroughs.

Mr. Meeks won his race, according to the A.P., and Ms. Clarke held a comfortable lead in early returns. But Ms. Maloney was in a tight race with Suraj Patel, who ran against her in 2018.

While Democrats dominated the conversation in New York, two traditionally Republican seats were also drawing interest at opposite ends of the state.

In Long Island, Representative Peter King, the state’s most prominent Republican member of Congress, is retiring, leaving a wide-open race, and Democrats dreaming of a pickup in November.

In Western New York, State Senator Chris Jacobs held a Republican seat, winning a special election to complete the term of Chris Collins, who resigned last fall just before pleading guilty to federal insider trading charges. The Democratic candidate, Nate McMurray, had hoped to flip the deep-red 27th Congressional District, but has, in any case, pledged to fight Mr. Jacobs for a full term in November. President Trump and his son both offered endorsements for Mr. Jacobs in the closing days of the campaign.

Two open House seats — held by retiring Democrats in the lower Hudson Valley and the Bronx — were also being closely watched, with a scrum of candidates in both districts.

In the Hudson Valley district held by Representative Nita Lowey, seven Democrats were in the race, including Mondaire Jones, a Harvard educated lawyer seeking to become the first openly gay black member of Congress. Mr. Jones held a sizable lead late Tuesday.

In the Bronx, an even bigger free-for-all was underway in the 15th Congressional District, with a collection of rising Democratic stars and older political veterans seeking to replace the outgoing congressman, José E. Serrano. There, Rubén Díaz Sr., a conservative former state senator with a history of anti-gay remarks, had been considered among the favorites, but was trailing City Councilman Ritchie Torres and Assemblyman Michael A. Blake in early returns. If he emerged victorious, Mr. Torres, too, could be the first openly gay black member of Congress.

Across the state, the pandemic upended the practicalities of electoral democracy: In late April, after the deaths of thousands of New Yorkers, and amid fears of a second wave, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo increased access to absentee voting by mail, resulting in election officials issuing nearly two million ballots to voters statewide. Mr. Cuomo later allowed those ballots to be postmarked as late as Primary Day.

The sheer number of absentee ballots to be counted could prove daunting to election officials, especially considering the fraught and fractious battles over vote counts even before the coronavirus, like last year’s contested election for district attorney in Queens.

Before voting began on Tuesday morning, New York City officials were warning that some polling sites could open late because of overnight subway closures. Still there were only scattered reports of problems at some poll locations in the city.

In Kentucky, fears of long lines in Louisville, which only had one polling location, did not come true.

But a largely smooth day of voting there turned more problematic as polls closed; voters complained of traffic getting into the city’s sole polling location, preventing them from getting in line on time.

The Booker campaign filed a petition with a local judge, as voters crowded the locked doors of the Expo Center and pounded on the glass windows. Eventually, a judge ruled that the doors could be reopened and voters who had been caught in traffic could vote. The center began breaking down its voting equipment roughly an hour later.

The state’s second-largest city, Lexington, was plagued by waits of up to two hours at the University of Kentucky’s football stadium. In-person turnout exceeded the predictions of local election officials, and the check-in process at the stadium had created a bottleneck that lead to the longer lines.

By early afternoon, though, county officials added more check-in options and the lines shrunk considerably. But the mass consolidation of polling places concerned some activists about the potential for a similar setup in November.

Luis Ferré-Sadurní and Nick Corasaniti contributed reporting.


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