The biggest names in American progressive politics, Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), are throwing their weight behind Charles Booker, a Democratic candidate for Senate hoping to unseat Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky.
Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsements break from the Democratic Party’s official stance in the race. Democratic leaders tapped Amy McGrath, the retired Marine fighter pilot who ran a high-profile race to unseat Republican Rep. Andy Barr in the 2018 midterms but fell short. The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee endorsed McGrath in February.
But Booker, a member of the Kentucky House of Representatives and the state’s youngest Black lawmaker, has been gaining steam in the primary in recent weeks after taking a front-and-center role in the state’s protests against police brutality. His hometown of Louisville has been mourning the loss of two Black Kentuckians at the hands of police force. Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old EMT, was shot by officers in her own apartment in March. David McAtee, a beloved local BBQ joint owner, was killed by law enforcement during the protests for Black lives last week.
Sanders, who has been slow to weigh in on Senate races so far in the 2020 cycle, cited Booker’s participation in the protests in the endorsement he announced to supporters Tuesday morning.
“As Louisville has become an epicenter of national tragedy and protests due to the police murders of Breonna Taylor and David McAtee, Charles has shown leadership by showing up on the frontlines,” Sanders said, adding that Booker “supports progressive policies such as criminal justice reform, Medicare for All, and getting big money out of politics.”
Ocasio-Cortez announced her endorsement in a tweet less than an hour later, backing a candidate she said is “building the kind of principled, inclusive, and winning coalition in Kentucky that can inspire positive change.”
Like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, Booker has also backed a Green New Deal, the sweeping plan to overhaul the nation’s economy and address climate change, and “Medicare for All,” a push to move all Americans to a single government-run health insurance plan.
The Lexington Herald-Leader, Kentucky’s second-largest newspaper, also endorsed Booker Tuesday.
There is no independent polling in the Kentucky Senate primary, but the endorsements bolster the sense that Booker has gained momentum in a race in which a runaway McGrath victory seemed all but guaranteed just a month ago. Like other Senate candidates the DSCC and Democratic establishment had backed, McGrath seemed set to cruise to an easy victory as the left struggled to unite behind and boost progressive challengers like Booker.
“We haven’t seen a lot of progressive challengers get a lot of momentum and I think that is because you do see that national Democrats have lined up behind some of these challengers that they see as more able to win in especially very red states like Kentucky,” Jessica Taylor, with the nonpartisan election watch group Cook Political Report, said.
McGrath, who proved a powerful fundraiser during her 2018 congressional race, set early Kentucky fundraising records and has so far brought in more money than McConnell in 2020. But early missteps, including waffling positions on whether she would have voted to put Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, and McGrath’s efforts to position herself for the general election also left room to her left. Booker has risen to fill that space in recent weeks, especially after McGrath struggled to respond to the protests for Black lives in her state’s biggest cities. During a Senate primary debate last week, McGrath admitted she had not been to the demonstrations and was staying home with her family.
On Tuesday, McGrath sent an email to supporters that said she supported independent investigations whenever police used force that caused harm or death, expanding racial bias and de-escalation training for police, and requiring every police officer to wear a functioning body camera.
Booker has marched with protesters, called for the firing of the police officers who killed Taylor, and pushed major reforms to the city’s police department.
“This is a city that’s been on edge and Charles has been on the frontlines of it very much so from day one,” said Matt Erwin, a Democratic strategist in the state, about Booker’s recent rise. “There was this thought that this was a Louisville issue and not a state issue, but now we are seeing similar protests in really little and not racially diverse towns in Kentucky.”
After struggling to raise money for months, Booker’s campaign has seen a surge in donations in the June, raising half a million dollars in the first week of the month. Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsements come on the heels of several recent state and local endorsements, including prominent sports radio host Matt Jones, who himself considered a run for the nomination. Booker also aired his first television ad of the cycle Tuesday, a $400,000 30-second spot that called out McGrath’s willingness to work with Trump directly.
“Kentucky needs a real Democrat who will take on Mitch McConnell,” Booker narrates in the ad.
But his fundraising efforts still pale in comparison to that of McGrath and McConnell, who have poured millions of dollars into a general-election-focused race for the last year. McGrath raised $12.8 million in the first quarter of 2020, and McConnell pulled in $7.5 million during that same time period.
The Kentucky primary will take place on June 23.