Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will serve another term as the senior senator from Kentucky, fending off former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath, one of his toughest challengers since he was elected to the Senate in 1984.
With 79 percent of the vote counted, McConnell led McGrath 57.9 percent to 38.3 percent, on his way to a seventh term.
In his victory speech, McConnell highlighted his experience and the fact that he represents a state in Middle America, noting "I'm the only one of the four Congressional leaders not from New York or California."
McConnell used the moment to speak on the challenges created by the pandemic, the need to rebuild the economy, continuing the country's investment in the military and holding China accountable.
He also connected his win to Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King's March on Washington Speech in 1963, saying he "dreamed of doing big things for our state and our country."
"I never imagined Kentuckians would make me the longest-serving senator in our state's history or that my fellow Senate Republicans would make me the longest-serving Republican leader in U.S. Senate history," McConnell said, as his wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, stood by his side.
"Together, we've used Kentucky's front-row seat for the good of our state and of our nation."
McConnell highlighted his work to fill the federal judiciary with conservative judges, and he also said he maintained the Senate's historic role as Congress' deliberative body. That also opened up an opportunity to take a shot at Democrats by characterizing Kentucky's vote on Tuesday as a rejection of policies he deemed socialist.
"Tonight, Kentuckians said, 'We're not finished yet.' Kentucky wants more of the policies that built the best economy in modern history, not socialism that would stifle prosperity and hurt workers," he said.
McGrath battled long odds by taking on McConnell in an instantly high-profile race.
A win by the incumbent had been widely expected, given recent polling in the state that showed McGrath down by 9 or 10 points. Still, the state seemed to provide fertile terrain for a possible upset, as Democratic voters outpaced Republicans in mail-in and early in-person ballots returned, according to NBC News’ Decision Desk/TargetSmart.
McGrath had spent the final moments of Election Day campaigning in central and northern Kentucky and watched the count from Georgetown, Kentucky. The campaign said it had decided to not have an Election Night party because of the pandemic.
In a video message posted to social media, McGrath thanked her supporters and "many people fighting alongside me who believed in this mission." The race, she said, was not about her or Mitch McConnell but about Kentuckians and the "powerful grassroots movement" that they built together.
"Although we didn’t get the result we wanted, the energy and optimism I saw in every corner of this state gives me so much hope for the future of our great commonwealth," she said. "Today, the country can start to heal after these ugly and divisive four years."
The stakes were high, as flipping the seat stood to sideline a major Republican player from the next Congress. McConnell is expected to serve as the leader of the minority or majority in the Senate, depending on how the balance of power shakes out.
Both sides raised and spent sizable sums: McGrath raised more than $88 million and spent over $73 million, while McConnell raised $55.5 million and spent nearly $44 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
In the final weeks of the election, McGrath focused her campaign on criticizing McConnell for his handling of the pandemic and inability to pass further coronavirus relief, which stuttered to a stop in the Senate.
She also hit him for further gridlock in the Senate as well as not addressing infrastructure, racial injustice, poverty and health care issues in Kentucky.
"You know that we need change," she said at a Louisville campaign stop in the final days of the election, according to The Louisville Courier-Journal. "That's what this election is all about: health care; getting everyone the right to vote; making sure that we tackle this coronavirus and get our economy back; making sure we have good quality jobs for the future; tackling the racial injustice that we've seen in this country for far too long; investing in us and things like infrastructure, broadband, education for our kids and for the future."
McConnell laughed off the criticism during the race’s lone debate last month, emphasizing his Hill influence.
"Look, the question is: Who can be effective for Kentucky?" he said. "I give Kentucky an opportunity to punch above its weight on national issues and to bring home things for this state that it would not otherwise get."
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer recruited McGrath to run for the Senate seat after she lost a close race for Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District in 2018. While she at first appeared to split the difference on whether she would consider supporting President Donald Trump’s agenda — including backing for his Supreme Court justices and her accusation that McConnell had undermined the president — McGrath fell into a reliable position of opposition to Trump.
That early posture in part led to a difficult Democratic primary in which state Rep. Charles Booker, a progressive Democrat, entered the race late and nearly claimed the nomination. She defeated him by fewer than 3 points.
But the general election had always posed the stiffer challenge: McConnell defeated Kentucky’s then-Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes by 16 points in 2014, and Trump won the state by nearly 30 points in 2016.
Still, McGrath said she maintained a sense of accomplishment despite her loss.
"I’m proud of my contributions in helping Democrats take back the House in 2018 and now hopefully the Senate in 2020," she said, referring also to her failed candidacy for a House seat in 2018. "While we didn't win these campaigns, we were able to shore up efforts up and down the ticket in Kentucky — and on the national stage, make Republicans fight every battle we could."