RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Several states hold primaries today, and in two of the most notable races, Black Democrats who are new to the political scene are mounting progressive challenges against white candidates who are backed by the party establishment. NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro is with us this morning. Hi, Domenico.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.
MARTIN: First up, who's voting today?
MONTANARO: You've got people in five states voting in primaries today in the South - Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia and Mississippi - and also in New York in the Northeast. And the big races people are watching are in Kentucky and New York, where we have those two races that you mentioned.
MARTIN: All right, so let's dig into those. Let's start in Kentucky, where Democrats clearly trying to unseat Mitch McConnell. What's happening there?
MONTANARO: Yeah. You have the Democratic primary for the Senate, and the winner, like you mentioned, would take on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. It's been a wild race between State Representative Charles Booker and Amy McGrath, who is a former fighter pilot. We've really seen a change in trajectory in this race since the death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville. Taylor is the Black woman who was shot and killed by police after they used a no-knock warrant to get into her apartment.
Before Taylor's death, McGrath was the overwhelming front-runner. I mean, she'd taken in $41 million and had the backing of the Democratic Party establishment. That's all changed. Booker, who is black, has taken a real leadership role in speaking out after her death. He's taken part in Black Lives Matter protests, and he has had all the momentum now, with at least one poll showing him ahead. High-profile progressives have come out for him - Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Warren. He's got a new video out, Booker, that really encapsulates a lot of messages nationally that Democrats have been trying to push about working-class economics, protests and Black Lives Matter. Here's a bit from that.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
CHARLES BOOKER: Finally, the power of the people is beginning to show. We've seen who keeps society running.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: No justice, no peace.
BOOKER: It's the Black janitors, the brown cashiers, the white folks stocking the shelves. The essential people are rising up.
MONTANARO: Now, look; while this primary's going to be interesting, it's going to get lots of attention because of who they're going to face off with, this is Kentucky in a presidential year. President Trump won it by 30 points in 2016, so whoever wins is going to be an underdog against McConnell for sure.
MARTIN: And there's a similar dynamic shaping up in the New York Democratic race, right? Explain.
MONTANARO: Yeah. That's right. There's a challenge to longtime Congressman Eliot Engel, who's the House Foreign Affairs chairman. He represents the Bronx and Southern Westchester County. He's been in Congress for more than 30 years, but he's got his hands full with Jamaal Bowman, a former middle school principal from the Bronx. He's also got the endorsement of Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez. This race really changed after Engel had a hot mic moment that was caught on tape by News 12. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ELIOT ENGEL: If I didn't have a primary, I wouldn't care.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Say that again.
ENGEL: If I didn't have a primary, I wouldn't care.
MONTANARO: So you hear him there saying that if he didn't have a primary, he wouldn't necessarily care about speaking at this event. And, you know, if it weren't for that, he - you might not see this kind of surge that's taken place. But he's taken a lot of heat for that. Bowman raised $2 million since that and now is ahead in the polls.
MARTIN: OK. Just quickly, Domenico, any other races to keep an eye on?
MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, look; Ocasio-Cortez, by the way, finds herself as - with a primary challenge for the first time after unseating a Democratic incumbent, and there are two Republican ex-Congresspeople who are trying to make comebacks in seats that could be competitive this fall.
MARTIN: NPR's Domenico Montanaro, thanks.
MONTANARO: You're welcome.
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