POLITICS

Charles Booker Suddenly Has Progressives Excited About Kentucky

A front-line role in anti-racist protests thrust Booker into the national spotlight — and shook up the Democratic race to face Mitch McConnell.
Former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath (left) and state Rep. Charles Booker are locked in Kentucky's newly heated Democratic
Former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath (left) and state Rep. Charles Booker are locked in Kentucky's newly heated Democratic primary race to face Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in November.

As recently as a month ago, Kentucky’s Democratic Senate primary was a sleepy affair. Former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath had raised a metric ton of money, won the backing of Democratic leaders in Washington, and paid little attention to the upstart challengers running to her left, focusing instead on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the six-term Republican from whom Democrats are trying to wrest away a Senate seat and control of the Senate itself. She seemed set to cruise to victory in a primary delayed until June 23 by the coronavirus pandemic.

But in the last three weeks, progressive state Rep. Charles Booker, the youngest Black state lawmaker elected in Kentucky in nearly a century, has interrupted McGrath’s quiet stroll to the nomination.

Booker, 35, has surged after appearing on the front lines of racial justice protests in Louisville, where demonstrations erupted over the police killing of emergency medical technician Breonna Taylor, a Black woman. His campaign has amassed enough money to splurge on TV ads accusing McGrath of being too moderate and hitting her for failing to join the protests. He has won endorsements from a slate of local and national progressive leaders, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Kentucky’s two largest newspapers and 19 state legislators have endorsed him, too. 

The shifting race has turned the supposedly deep red state of Kentucky into the latest battleground between a more pragmatic Democratic establishment urging caution and a progressive insurgency arguing that the party should move faster to address the urgent needs of voters ― especially as a devastating pandemic, the economic collapse it has caused and a nationwide outburst of protests expose the country’s deep failings on health care, the economy, racial equality and American democracy itself

Booker and his supporters think they have unlocked the right strategy for energizing Democrats and beating McConnell, a task that has eluded their party for three decades: Don’t apologize for being a Democrat. Don’t be afraid to run on issues Democrats care about. And prioritize turning out Democratic voters.

It’s a strategy that new Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, wielded to win a razor-thin race this past November. But Booker has taken it to the progressive hilt ― refusing to shy away from racial justice issues in a state that’s 87% white; insisting on backing big environmental reforms in the fifth-largest coal-producing state in America; swearing, perhaps against the odds, that Kentucky is ready for a progressive leader like him. It worries many local Democrats who think the state is not, but in the current moment, it has started to seem like exactly what many Kentuckians want. 

Booker has surged in the Democratic primary after appearing on the front lines of racial justice protests in Louisville. Now
Booker has surged in the Democratic primary after appearing on the front lines of racial justice protests in Louisville. Now he's pulling in a flood of money and racking up major endorsements.

A lack of independent polling, an uncertain electorate and the challenges driven by the pandemic ― most Kentucky counties are now limited to one polling site, and the state has no-excuse mail-in voting in place for the primary for the first time ― have left everyone flying blind into the race’s final days. 

Armed with $20 million in cash, establishment credibility and a name identification advantage, McGrath still looks like the prohibitive favorite. But Booker has outsider energy, excitement in the online progressive world and grassroots support on the ground.

“There’s no result in this primary that could shock me now,” said Matt Erwin, a Kentucky-based Democratic strategist who is not affiliated with any of the campaigns in the race. “And anybody who says they know is kidding themselves.”

‘Over And Over Again, We Keep Running The Same Playbook’

Two years ago, it was McGrath who ran as a new-model outsider against an establishment-backed favorite seeking a House seat. 

Mixing grievance politics (the Democratic establishment has forgotten about you) and substance (expanded health care, minimum wage hikes and hints at economic populism), McGrath overcame a 40-percentage-point gap to win her congressional primary in its closing days. 

She was frank, fearless and authentic, the sort of candidate who’d let an errant curse fly from the stump and promised donors that she was “more progressive than anybody in the state of Kentucky.” Candidates like her, McGrath’s campaign argued, could win even in areas that leaned conservative if they focused on pocketbook issues and convinced voters ― even those who disagreed with them ― that they would fight on the voters’ behalf.

McGrath narrowly lost the general election to incumbent GOP Rep. Andy Barr. To Democratic Party leaders hoping to win back the Senate, she seemed like a dream 2020 recruit: She was an incredible fundraiser who could go toe-to-toe with McConnell money-wise, and she had the sort of biography ― military vet, woman, outsider ― that seemed to make an upset possible.

Had everything gone to plan in the early stages of the current race, it’s unlikely she’d have drawn a meaningful primary challenge ― if not quite progressive by national standards, she certainly is by Kentucky’s. 

Folks are ready for something new. We want to try something different. Cassia Herron, board chair of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth

But last July, during her first national TV appearance as a candidate, McGrath stumbled through an answer about President Donald Trump in which she seemed to hit McConnell for standing in the way of Trump’s promises to “drain the swamp,” “bring back jobs” and “lower prescription drug prices.” Then she flipped, flopped and flipped again on whether she’d have voted in favor of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, drawing the ire of Democrats and progressives nationwide.

The missteps didn’t dent her fundraising capability ― McGrath raised $10 million early in the race and has raked in $40 million so far. But they cracked the veneer of outsider authenticity that existed around her 2018 campaign.

In Kentucky, the slip-ups generated some concern among party insiders that anointing McGrath so early had been a mistake. Among progressives, it fueled the idea that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which officially backed McGrath in February of this year, had merely wanted a talented and inoffensive fundraiser who could occupy McConnell’s attention and money leading up to the election while the party chased more winnable seats elsewhere. 

For years, Kentucky Democrats have run the same sort of hyper-calculated race against McConnell and other Senate Republicans, focusing first and foremost on winning back conservative rural Democrats who’ve abandoned the party in droves. It has led to embarrassing attempts to avoid putting off those voters ― in her 2014 race against McConnell, then-Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes refused to say if she’d voted for President Barack Obama ― and loss after loss after loss. 

Beating McConnell is a near-impossible task no matter what tack a Democratic candidate takes, but early in the 2020 cycle, some in the state were eager to test the reverse strategy: a full-on fight against McConnell that prioritized the Democratic base and then tried to make the math work with suburban converts and a handful of more conservative rural Democrats who like Trump and dislike the national Democratic Party but might be wooed back with the right sort of message. 

“What we’ve seen is that over and over and over again, we keep running the same playbook,” said Cassia Herron, the board chair of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a grassroots progressive organization. The New Power PAC, the group’s campaign arm, endorsed Booker in February. “Folks are ready for something new. We want to try something different,” Herron said.

‘From The Hood To The Holler’

Booker, who worked in state government and Democratic politics before winning his state legislative seat in 2018, jumped into the Senate race in November with a stirring two-minute video that went after McConnell in righteous terms: “You know the name of the man I’m talking about, but he doesn’t know your name,” Booker said. “He doesn’t see you in the hospital bed, or in the checkout line, or at the safety drills in your classroom. He doesn’t see you at all.”

It’s impossible to ignore the parallels to McGrath’s 2018 launch, when her slick introductory video involving a fighter jet became a viral sensation. (Producing it nearly bankrupted her campaign.) But whereas McGrath benefited from her early decision to run, Booker’s entry was met with considerably less fanfare ― although one progressive group immediately jumped on board.

McGrath was the early pick of the Democratic establishment after she overcame a massive deficit to win a 2018 House primary a
McGrath was the early pick of the Democratic establishment after she overcame a massive deficit to win a 2018 House primary and then only narrowly lost the general election to the Republican incumbent.

In 2018, the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate organization, had held a congressional sit-in in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office to demand support for a Green New Deal, the proposed sweeping overhaul of the nation’s economy meant to address climate change. One of Sunrise’s largest delegations came from the Bluegrass State, fostering belief inside the group that there might be grassroots appetite for more progressive candidates in Kentucky. Sunrise endorsed Booker in early December last year and put its Kentucky chapter to work boosting his campaign.

Others, too, had sensed the potential of a progressive campaign: Another former Marine named Mike Broihier left behind his asparagus farm in rural Lincoln County to enter the primary last summer. Broihier, a former teacher and journalist, staked his campaign to the call for a universal basic income (which Booker also supports) and later won the backing of former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang. Broihier based his run on the idea that “you can present progressive ideas to Kentuckians as long as you do it right, as long as you don’t talk down to people,” he said last week. 

No one gave either much of a chance, but early in his candidacy, Booker crafted his message as a full-throated progressive who understood the stakes.

On a trip across Appalachia in February, he pitched the Green New Deal to voters left behind by the collapse of the coal industry. It was less of a specific policy proposal than an argument that beating McConnell required uniting Kentuckians “from the hood to the holler,” as Booker’s slogan goes. Washington’s way of doing things, Booker argued, had led it to ignore and hurt both the mostly Black residents of West Louisville, which he represents in the state legislature, and the mostly white residents of eastern Kentucky. (It’s the sort of message, Herron said, that organizers have been trying to push for years.)

Voters who might look and live differently, Booker insisted, still have the same concerns: They want to be able to pay their utility bills, find good jobs, drink clean water, and afford medicine and health care. While “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal were Booker’s ideas for how to get there, the policy details were almost secondary. His appeals were aimed at the one thing that unifies Kentuckians in a state that often feels like five different regions mashed together: a deep, perhaps inexplicable to outsiders, pride in just being Kentuckian.

“People in Kentucky love the state of Kentucky,” said Matt Jones, a popular sports radio host who considered running in the Democratic primary and endorsed Booker last week. “Charles is basically saying, ‘Look, whether you’re from the West End of Louisville or you’re from deep in Appalachia, we all have Kentucky in common, and we actually have a lot of the same struggles.’ And I think people really like that.”

“I don’t think most people in eastern Kentucky are gonna agree with Charles necessarily on the Green New Deal, but on the things that matter the most, I think they can,” added Jones, who is from southeastern Kentucky and isn’t sure he supports the Green New Deal himself. “He says what he believes and he speaks from the heart. And I think when you do that, people will give you the benefit of the doubt even when they disagree.”

Booker’s campaign argues that the election against McConnell requires motivating the base first and says it has internal polling showing that Kentucky’s likely Democratic primary electorate favors a candidate who can help drive young voters and people of color to the polls. (Black people make up less than 9% of Kentucky’s population. Nevertheless, they’re a powerful, and often overlooked, voting bloc in a state where Democrats need every vote, especially in cities like Louisville and Lexington.)

“This means Charles can be perceived as the most electable candidate, if we are able to tell his story fully,” the campaign wrote in an April memo it circulated across the state. “A majority of Democrats here know that the only way to beat McConnell is to inspire a movement and get record turnout among young people and people of color.” 

The threshold question was always whether Booker could even raise enough money to make his argument to primary voters.

Booker’s camp didn’t think he needed to compete dollar-for-dollar on TV with McGrath, an impossible task anyway. Instead, it enlisted the help of a progressive D.C. political consulting firm and focused on building energy and enthusiasm online. A communications firm run by veterans of Sanders’ presidential campaigns came on board in late April. But even as he brought in some cash from small donors, Booker struggled to make gains on McGrath, who was spending money at a rapid clip. 

To break through, Booker needed a spark. 

‘The Man Met The Moment’ 

The death of Breonna Taylor in March did not immediately set off the sort of protests that erupted after a police officer killed George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25. But after Floyd’s death, the unrest that had bubbled beneath the surface in Louisville, a deeply segregated city with a long history of police violence against Black people, boiled over. 

Booker was among the first state lawmakers to call for a special investigation into Taylor’s death. When protests broke out in the city after Floyd’s killing, he assumed a leading role. Booker amplified early calls to fire and arrest the three police officers involved in the Taylor shooting, marched in the demonstrations, and was among those tear-gassed when police cracked down.

During a June 1 primary debate, Booker spoke of his experience growing up in and representing a Black Louisville community and then protesting with it. McGrath, meanwhile, said she hadn’t joined the demonstrations because she was at home with her family.

When you see Charles Booker showing up at protests, and his history of being engaged in the movement for Black lives, and the absence of Amy McGrath, that’s quite telling. Maria Langholz, a spokeswoman for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee

Booker’s campaign has always rested on the idea that Kentuckians feel a sense of urgency about what’s broken and that they can’t wait any longer for big fixes to health care and poverty, the environment, the opioid crisis, a lack of good jobs or an overbearing and racist criminal justice system. 

“We’re out here trying to survive,” Booker told HuffPost in February. He often notes that he has had to ration insulin for his diabetes, that he has lost cousins to gun violence, and that his mom often had to let the electricity lapse to keep food on the table when he was growing up.

The outbreak of protests gave voice to Black Americans, in Louisville and beyond, who had been repeatedly ignored by political leaders in the past when they raised issues around police brutality, persistent segregation and racial inequality. They won broader support this time from white Americans. In Kentucky, the protests spread from Louisville across the state and even to small, mostly white towns in Appalachia. Together with the pandemic, which has cost Kentucky nearly 1 million jobs, the demonstrations made it impossible to ignore the scope of the problems facing the state or the immediate need for change. 

And there was Booker, a candidate speaking to ― and feeling ― the same frustrations, with a campaign aimed primarily at those Kentuckians. 

“The man met the moment,” Jones said, in a line that more than one Kentuckian used to describe Booker’s late momentum. The Lexington Herald-Leader, Kentucky’s second-largest newspaper, tapped into that sentiment when it endorsed Booker, writing that “now is the time for bold and brave ideas” and “passion over pragmatism.”

Protesters raise their fists in solidarity while listening to a speaker on June 5 in Louisville, Kentucky. Booker's presence
Protesters raise their fists in solidarity while listening to a speaker on June 5 in Louisville, Kentucky. Booker's presence at the ongoing protests has given a huge boost to his campaign.

Throughout the spring, Booker and the Sunrise Movement continued working contacts in national progressive groups. It had been a rough 2020 for progressives so far. In Senate campaigns especially, establishment picks have easily beaten back insurgent challengers and Sanders’ presidential campaign ended with a whimper after a hot start. 

As the protests grew and Booker’s profile surged with them, he emerged as the left’s best hope ― at least on the Senate side.

“When you see Charles Booker showing up at protests, and his history of being engaged in the movement for Black lives, and the absence of Amy McGrath, that’s quite telling,” said Maria Langholz, a spokeswoman for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a 1-million-member group that endorsed Booker last week, after Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez backed him. 

Those endorsements have helped generate a fundraising surge that has allowed Booker to spend more than $1 million on TV late in the primary race and bolster efforts on the ground, where he has amassed a small volunteer army and the Sunrise Movement has made nearly 250,000 calls to voters in an effort to boost his support. This week, Booker won endorsements from Lundergan Grimes and former Kentucky Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo, Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. 

It’s possible ― perhaps even likely ― that all the excitement is for naught. 

McGrath still has a massive money advantage. This week, as Booker aired a $640,000 TV ad criticizing her for skipping the protests, McGrath spent more than $3 million on radio ads and three separate TV spots about the demonstrations, her Democratic bona fides and her background in the military. She likely retains a huge name ID edge over Booker. And last week, even Booker’s internal polling showed that she had a 50-point lead among those who’d already taken advantage of absentee voting, which began in late May. 

While that gap narrowed among people who planned to vote on Election Day, it still found Booker down 10 points overall. It’s still unclear whether he ― or any progressive, for that matter ― can win at the scale required outside Louisville and Lexington. 

Kentucky is bigger and more expensive than it can seem, and it’s hard to win a race there in two weeks ― especially as a progressive outsider whose opponent is spending more on TV and radio in the final week than he’s raised in the entire campaign. Booker may be the man of the moment. The moment may have just arrived too late.

His most ardent supporters are confident he can pull off the upset. But even if he doesn’t, progressive groups that have spent years organizing in Kentucky believe Booker’s candidacy may have lasting effects. He has built a network of volunteers and energized voters who’ve long wanted to witness a candidate simply try to run this sort of campaign ― one that could excite young people, progressives and Black Kentuckians who’ve often felt left out and taken for granted, while potentially appealing to some disaffected rural white voters too. 

“We have not been able to test the electorate in a way in which we’re seeing at this moment,” said Herron, of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. “We’re building the progressive infrastructure for a campaign to be successful in the long term.”

A Booker loss ― especially if it’s by a large margin ― will cause some to argue that an unabashedly progressive campaign simply can’t win in Kentucky today, and they might not be wrong. But it may also give progressives a better sense of how far they have to go and how they might go about getting there, particularly in future races down the ballot or in a 2022 contest against GOP Sen. Rand Paul. 

And whatever happens in the primary, the progressive energy around Booker’s campaign has sent an important message ― that the string of defeats in the presidential primaries and Senate contests nationwide has left the progressive movement battered but not defeated, and it is ready to keep battling, even and maybe especially in states where the odds are stacked against it. 

“The progressive movement, if it wants to win in the long run, has to be serious about building everywhere, and taking risks and investing in places and people that are worth investing in,” said Evan Weber, a co-founder of the Sunrise Movement. “Even if they might not be the most likely to win in any given election cycle.”

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