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Ex-fighter pilot McGrath to take on Republican McConnell after Kentucky primary win

(Reuters) – Former fighter pilot Amy McGrath said Tuesday she was ready to take on Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell after edging out a Black progressive to clinch the Democratic nomination for the seat.

McGrath, 45, held off a late surge from fellow Democrat Charles Booker, a state legislator, who gained on her late in the campaign as protests spread across the United States over police violence against Black people.

According to Kentucky state officials, McGrath was leading Booker with 45.3% to 42.8% of the vote with 118 of 120 counties reporting results. Multiple news organizations projected her as the winner.

The primary took place on June 23, but mailed ballots were accepted through Saturday, delaying the final results.

McConnell, 78, the most powerful Republican in Congress and a staunch supporter of President Donald Trump, is seeking a seventh six-year term.

“Last November, Kentuckians didn’t hesitate to replace an incompetent and unpopular incumbent. This November, we’re going to do it again,” McGrath wrote on Twitter, referring to Democratic Governor Andy Beshear’s 2019 defeat of Republican Matt Bevin.

McGrath won the backing of the Democratic Party’s establishment early in her campaign, including an endorsement from Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, and raised a massive $41 million in campaign funds.

Emphasizing her military experience, McGrath stressed in campaign ads that she was the “only candidate who can win” against McConnell, who has represented Kentucky in the Senate for over three decades.

McGrath follows in the mold of a handful of freshmen Democratic women with experience in national security fields who helped flip Republican House of Representatives seats in 2018.

She spent 20 years in the Marines, flying 89 combat missions.

McGrath faces an uphill battle in taking on McConnell, said Nathan Gonzales, editor of Inside Elections, which provides nonpartisan analysis of campaigns.

“McGrath was a long shot before the competitive primary and is a long shot now that it’s over,” Gonzalez said, noting that Beshear’s victory came in a three-way race in which a Libertarian Party candidate, John Hicks, also won a substantial number of votes.

Kentucky is a conservative state that voted for Trump by 30 percentage points in 2016.

Republicans’ majority of 53 to 47 seats in the U.S. Senate is looking increasingly vulnerable in the Nov. 3 election, according to political analysts.

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