Progressive Charles Booker Unveils First Big Ad Buy In Race To Oust Mitch McConnell

The Kentucky lawmaker has gained momentum against primary favorite Amy McGrath after standing up in protests for Black lives.
Kentucky state Rep. Charles Booker is running to take on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in November.
Kentucky state Rep. Charles Booker is running to take on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in November.

Somewhat suddenly, retired Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath’s bid to be chosen the Democrats’ candidate against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is no longer a sure bet. 

Fourteen days before the state’s Democratic Senate primary, another candidate, Charles Booker, Kentucky’s youngest Black state lawmaker, is having a moment. For weeks, he has been visible at the protests for Black lives in Louisville, a city that has been reeling over the deaths of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old EMT whom police shot and killed in her own apartment, and David “Ya Ya” McAtee, a barbecue joint owner who was killed by law enforcement during the demonstrations protesting excessive police force.

Running to McGrath’s left, in support of the Green New Deal, “Medicare for All” and a universal basic income, Booker has been raising roughly $100,000 a day since the start of June, after struggling to pull in cash for months.

“A couple weeks ago [Booker] couldn’t afford an ad buy. A couple weeks ago he couldn’t afford a poll,” said Matt Erwin, a Kentucky Democratic strategist who is not affiliated with either the McGrath or Booker campaigns. “But the last couple weeks have changed everything.”

On Tuesday, Booker’s campaign will go on the air in Kentucky for the first time with a $400,000 ad buy, to run over the next week. The 30-second spot, titled “Fighting for Real Change” and airing in all Kentucky media markets, takes a direct swipe at McGrath.

“Kentucky needs a real Democrat who will take on Mitch McConnell,” Booker narrates before a clip of McGrath embracing parts of President Donald Trump’s agenda. 

McGrath is shown saying, “That’s going to be my message: the things Kentuckians voted for Trump for are not getting done.” The text on the screen comes from a 2019 Courier Journal article headlined “Amy McGrath challenges Mitch McConnell as a pro-Trump Democrat.” (She was referring to campaign promises once made by Trump — like lowering drug prices and bringing back jobs after the 2008 recession — that McGrath argues McConnell stood in the way of.)

Until now, Booker has faced an uphill battle against McGrath, who was tapped by Democratic leaders to run against McConnell after losing a high-profile congressional race against Rep. Andy Barr (R) in 2018. Because of her national profile, McGrath has raised more money than even McConnell in 2020. Her donors are focused on ousting the Senate Republican leader in the general election. And her campaign has been aggressive in spending early with an eye on November, dropping $2 million on television ads in 2019.

It’s a war chest that might be too big to overcome, especially just two weeks from primary day. 

“They are spending money like drunken sailors — both [McGrath] and Mitch. I don’t see how [Booker] overcomes that,” said another Democratic strategist in the state, who asked for anonymity because of his affiliation with another candidate in the race. “It’s not a state that’s filled with Democratic primary voters that are that far left.”

But McGrath has had several stumbles in her campaign in addition to the “pro-Trump” label. An attempt to tack to the center on policy has been poorly received among progressives nationwide and state Democrats. She previously said she would have voted to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. And, particularly compared to Booker, she’s been notably absent in the protests for Black lives.

Booker is making the pitch that she’s not the kind of Democrat who should be trusted to take on McConnell and the Republican Party.

“There’s a real question right now about whether this [primary race] is a foregone conclusion. This week it’s not,” Erwin said, noting that rumors of McGrath’s fall abound in Democratic political circles.

Booker has received some major endorsements in the state recently. Several of his colleagues in the Kentucky House have come out in support of him, including three members of the state Democratic Party’s legislative leadership. Popular Kentucky Sports Radio host Matt Jones, who himself considered a Senate bid, has thrown his weight behind Booker, as has the progressive Association of Flight Attendants-CWA union.

But there’s little data on whether this momentum extends to the voters. There’s been no public polling in the Democratic primary, where there are currently 10 candidates, and McGrath has always been favored. National and state political observers all see it as an impossible contest to predict, particularly with the public health crisis around COVID-19 and the recent racial justice protests. Kentucky has loosened restrictions on mail-in ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s not at all clear how many people have already voted. 

“He’s got to raise his named ID to win,” said Jessica Taylor, with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “The primary could be engaging late because other things have been on voters’ minds with COVID and what happened in Louisville.”

Taylor noted that the same events that are making this race so hard to read may play to Booker’s advantage.

“I think we have seen certainly that money isn’t everything sometimes,” Taylor said. “As a Black man, he has a unique voice to speak on this. ... All of that takes on added resonance.”