Kentucky Democrats took a shellacking in November, as voters dashed any potential hope the beleaguered party had wanted to take out of the 2020 election cycle.
President-elect Joe Biden lost all but two of the state’s 120 counties on his way to a 27-point loss to President Donald Trump. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell cruised to a 20-point victory over Democratic candidate Amy McGrath, the second-largest margin of his 36-year Senate career. The GOP expanded its supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature. Democrats barely register in the state now: Gov. Andy Beshear is the only Democratic officeholder statewide, and Rep. John Yarmuth is alone in its Republican-heavy Washington delegation.
Kentucky is not the place to go looking for Democratic enthusiasm. Rather, it seems like every challenge the party faces has coalesced there at once: a base increasingly concentrated in major metro areas; a struggle to reach rural and working-class white voters; atrophied party infrastructure; and intra-party disputes over its direction that have left Democrats without a coherent message on the economy, racial justice, the environment or anything else.
To state Rep. Charles Booker, who narrowly lost the Democratic Senate primary to McGrath in June, that also makes Kentucky the perfect laboratory in which to rebuild the Democratic Party from the ground up.
“Just because someone is terrible ― and everyone knows how terrible Mitch McConnell is ― that isn’t enough to overcome generations of people feeling left behind, feeling like nothing will ever change, being very directly disenfranchised,” Booker told HuffPost earlier this month. “[McConnell’s victory] was shocking to a lot of folks nationally, but the truth is, if people still feel like no one’s listening to them, and then nothing matters, then how do you expect things to dramatically change?”
“This is a moment to not turn away from places like Kentucky, but to actually invest more on the ground,” he said. “And not just in candidates, not just around election time, but in people, year-round. There is no substitute for that type of work.”
Booker, who in 2018 became the youngest Black lawmaker elected to the Kentucky state legislature in a century, is already widely considered a likely candidate to take on GOP Sen. Rand Paul in 2022. His progressive primary challenge ― which focused heavily on the need for a Green New Deal to address climate change and modernize the economy, and “Medicare for All” to further expand health care coverage ― ultimately fell short, but his hope for Kentucky stems from the ways that he feels his campaign succeeded: Booker was massively outspent but lost by just a few points, in part because he spoke to the urgency many Kentuckians felt as the pandemic spread devastation and Black Lives Matter protests erupted after the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
Democrats, he said, need to overhaul their entire approach to political engagement ― to “get back on offense” and develop a platform and a message that addresses the problems voters face and matches their own desperation. But they also need to actually show up in the places they’ve “written off,” and develop the sort of organizing infrastructure that allows them to reach voters who feel like nothing can change. (After his primary defeat, Booker launched Hood to the Holler, a nonprofit organizing group named after a campaign slogan that seeks to link Kentuckians from urban and rural areas.)
“It’s not rocket science,” he said, and it’s perhaps too optimistic about a place that hasn’t voted for a Democratic senator since 1992 or the party’s presidential candidate since 1996. But given that Democrats have lost everything in Kentucky and many places like it, there’s also little reason to expect things to change if Democrats keep reading from the same playbook.
“You can use a crisis to either fall back in your corners, or you can use it to chart a new course forward,” Booker said. “And I’m proposing we finally chart the new course.”
The rest of his conversation with HuffPost follows.
What’s your view of the 2020 elections in Kentucky, and the race Amy McGrath ran against Mitch McConnell in particular?
I think the biggest takeaway from 2020 and our race for Senate here in Kentucky is that the deeper structural challenges that we’re facing are unavoidable. I think there is nothing short of a movement that is going to allow the type of change that would beat a Mitch McConnell. He’s an institution and anyone that was running against him was gonna have a tough time beating him, because he’s woven into the fabric. He’s been screwing us my entire life. Any campaign that doesn’t do that type of deep organizing, that doesn’t give voters a vision for the future, that doesn’t give people a reason to believe that anything can actually be different — no matter how much money you have, you’re not going to be successful.
People put a whole lot of money into races, not only in Kentucky, but in other places where Democrats weren’t successful. I think it should drum home the point you cannot buy your way out of the trauma and despair and hopelessness that has been there for generations. You’ve got to organize out of it. So as opposed to having a critique of McGrath, I think it really is an indictment of our whole model of political engagement. This should be crystal clear to everybody that we need to do things differently.
What does doing things differently look like, at least in a way that will make up for such a comprehensive defeat?
The overarching lesson that I take from all of this is how critical it is, especially as Democrats, that we have an agenda and a vision for people that inspires and mobilizes them, because the model that we’ve been using, particularly on the Democratic side, for so long, has been focused on tearing down an opponent like McConnell, and not really [presenting] a message about how we must address the structural challenges people are facing.
“We’ll talk about issues. We’ll have positions. But we haven’t done the relationship building that gives us the chance to build a bigger, broader coalition. You can’t ignore the challenges people are facing and expect things to change.”
You’ll see a whole lot of ads, but you don’t see a whole lot of investment in people. You don’t see the infrastructure. And I think that point is what we need to really galvanize around: How do we invest in people? How do we do the work of connecting in those places that we had forgotten, that we had written off, that we didn’t think were worth it?
I think it manifested itself in us continuing to see a sense of hopelessness at the ballot box. We have to transform that expectation that all we can expect is McConnell. That’s why I’m so urgent about this work, because I know it’s there. People are demanding it. And now we’ve got to listen to them.
When you say invest in people, can you explain what you mean?
One of the things that I’ve seen a lot as an organizer, and as someone who’s worked all across Kentucky, is that when it comes to politics, especially on the Democratic side, we’ll talk about issues. We’ll have positions. But we haven’t done the relationship building that gives us the chance to build a bigger, broader coalition.
Our common bonds are so prevalent ― poverty is so pervasive for so many of us, so many of us are fighting to keep food on the table, we’re fighting to afford our medication, we’re fighting to take care of our families. We have to go to those rural places in far eastern or far western Kentucky, to the urban areas, and start to go back to our foundation of getting on offense; telling people what we believe in, what our core values are, listening to them, and lifting up our common bonds, showing up and continuing to show up, and then training more folks to do the same thing.
It’s the type of thing that you typically expect a party apparatus to do. But we haven’t done it for years here. You can’t ignore the challenges people are facing and expect things to change.
You say that the people of Kentucky are ready for this. But the results on Nov. 3 suggest that the people of Kentucky are ready to go in the exact opposite direction. Is the electoral lens the wrong one? Or is there something to look at beyond the results?
People are demanding structural change, just no one ever listens to them. And even when you think about who voted for Trump, in a lot of cases we know that he weaponized hate and racism. But he also spoke to the fact that the system is broken. And he engaged people in a lot of parts of Kentucky that felt abandoned for a long time, as the coal industry declines and they’re being left behind and people are losing their livelihoods.
For me, it’s understanding that there’s a populist message there, it speaks to these challenges that people are facing ― that they feel left behind and are left behind. That gives us a chance to cast a vision forward and not fall into our fears and succumb to division, but to understand that we are fighting the same battles, and that if we join together, we can actually change them.
It’s a matter of being realistic. People in Kentucky are desperate for change. They’re so desperate that as soon as the opportunity came or someone was speaking to the challenges in a real way, they took the chance. A lot of folks who took the chance on Trump, they realized that they were burned. But then they felt like, “Well, how is anything ever going to change?” We have to answer that for them.
In a place that looks essentially like two different states, how do you go into these areas where Democrats have been almost entirely wiped out, where they seem to have a pretty big brand problem, and reach voters?
We have to be able to redefine our politics here, especially now. Things are so extreme. We are so far in our corners. And the Republicans have built so much infrastructure around their message of using these wedge issues to divide folks and using fear as a means to keep power at all of our expense. They’ve been able to create a message that has given people the idea that the only way that we protect our future is by succumbing to our fears.
The responsibility for us as Democrats is to build those relationships and show up not when you’re just asking for a vote, but to show up every day, and to say, this is what fighting for our future means. This is what fighting for our future can look like. What are the issues that are important to you? And this is how we help meet those concerns you have.
The bottom has fallen out for so many people. I cannot stress enough how much this pandemic has caused more Kentuckians to look around and ask more questions and to really begin to think about what our future is actually gonna look like. We have to be the ones to have the answer: that the future looks brighter for us when we stand together. The future looks bright for us if we fight poverty, and quit allowing corrupt politicians to rob us blind.
You used the phrase ‘infrastructure around their messaging’ regarding Republicans. There has been a pretty lengthy debate among House Democrats over the last few weeks about whether the party has a messaging issue or an infrastructure problem. But it sounds to me like you think they have both.
It’s both. We have essentially allowed Republicans like McConnell to define the narrative, and then we just play defense within it. And instead, it’s time that we get on the offense and begin to lift up our common bonds and values, and then cast our own agenda about how we help meet those common concerns and challenges that we’re all facing.
That’s how we were able to have a Green New Deal tour in eastern Kentucky. We didn’t just succumb to the narrative that the words “Green New Deal” are scary. We sat down with folks. And we talked to them about their own challenges with high utility bills, having water that irritates their skin and not being able to use it to fill bottles to feed their children, and not having sustainable jobs, and their livelihoods being taken away. And then we talked about what a Green New Deal represents in a sustainable economy, in addressing crumbling infrastructure, and making sure that they have adequate health care and sustainable housing. And when you do that, people say, “Wait a minute, not only do we want the Green New Deal, we want a Kentucky New Deal. We want to lead on that.” It gives us the chance to redefine the narrative. And I think that’s the moment we’re in.
I know that Democrats have been tussling back and forth on, “Well, our slogans are too extreme,” or, “Our slogans are causing people to go away from us.” I think the point of having the message, defining our own narrative and activating people in the off years and in places that we have given up on ― if you do both of those things, you can build winning coalitions.
What if it doesn’t work? What if large segments of rural white Kentuckians, in particular, have decided what team they’re on, and aren’t aren’t going to switch?
My actual response to that is that it already is working. We’re building the foundations for this movement. We’re doing the deeper work that doesn’t always rise to getting news coverage. But what Hood to the Holler ― and there are a lot of partners across Kentucky that are doing this type of work ― has done in just the last two months is build a network of volunteers, with over 5,000 Kentuckians that have signed up to volunteer. A lot of these folks are in places that we haven’t gone in years as Democrats. A lot of them voted for the first time this year. They never thought politics was for them. They didn’t think that democracy really meant anything for them. They’re just trying to survive.
“If we can own the message of what we’re fighting for, people can disagree on the slogans all they want. It gives people the chance to step back and take in what we’re really talking about, not just a narrative that Republicans want.”
We’re doing digital organizing training where we have thousands of people across Kentucky signing up to become organizers and citizen lobbyists, and building curriculum for folks to run for office. And we’re [trying to] build sustainable change that makes our ability to not only to win back more seats at the local level possible, but actually creates coalitions that can prioritize fighting and ending poverty. It’s not about one election, or two or three, it’s about the work of lifetimes. But the fact is, because so many people are feeling the urgency, we’ll be able to see immediate results if we lean into it. And I’m excited to prove a lot of folks wrong about what we’re gonna do in Kentucky.
Speaking of 2022, are you planning to run against Rand Paul?
I never thought I’d be in politics personally — certainly didn’t think I’d ever run for U.S. Senate. I’m praying on what’s next for me because I know my work isn’t done. I’m committed to Kentucky, and we need change at the statewide level. So I am evaluating what that means in a potential run.
But I’m also making it clear that this ain’t about me. The fact is that we need to get rid of the Mitch McConnells and the Rand Pauls and anyone else that looks to exploit our pain, or ignore our cries for change and continue on with the status quo. Poverty is being passed down from generation to generation. Folks are rationing their insulin, and dying because they don’t have a roof over their head. The fact that all of those things are still happening is proof that we should all feel a sense of urgency to do all we can. That’s really what this work means to me, and why I’m doubling down on Hood to the Holler and trying to build the infrastructure in Kentucky so that we can show proof of concept. If you can do it here in Kentucky, you can do it anywhere. I’m focused on that now. I don’t believe I’ve run my last race, but it was never just about one race.
Rev. Raphael Warnock is running in Georgia. You often talk about your Christian upbringing as the son of two ministers. Do Democrats, broadly speaking, need to do better about talking about God and their faith?
I’m glad you asked that question; when I talk about how we’ve conceded the narrative, that applies to our faith too. Faith is not partisan. Faith has been co-opted by the right in a lot of ways. For a lot of Kentuckians, as far as how their faith translates into their politics, they’re only getting one side of the conversation. And that’s where showing up and building relationships is important too. It’s showing up and explaining my convictions and why I fight for what I fight for. It helps give people a sense of connection in ways that they may not have thought existed.
I think it gives us a chance to talk about how the issues we believe in are the truest embodiment of faith, and not counter to it. Making sure that everyone has health care and has the ability to eat healthy food, and gets to be safe in their homes ― that is our way of honoring our faith.
You took a frontline role in Black Lives Matter protests after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, but there’s been a lot of talk among Democrats that “defund the police” and other calls that came out of those demonstrations hurt the party at the polls. How do you react to the suggestion that it hurt Democrats politically?
We collectively don’t grapple with what racism means at a structural level. It’s not a conversation we often have. When we deal with issues of race and racism, it tends to stop at the individual level and it doesn’t go to the system. And so a lot of people aren’t used to even having the conversation. This is not about slogans ― the idea of being safe in your home and having public safety actually mean something. When you’re having a mental health crisis; when you’ve lost your home because your job went away and you’re on the street; when you have a need — an armed officer coming to hurt you is not the answer.
Those are common responses that everyone can wrap their minds around if we dig deeper and have the conversation about these structural and institutional challenges that we’re facing. It’s another example of us showing up in our values, and not succumbing to the narrative and trying to defend or explain away which slogan we support or which slogan we don’t support. I think Congresswoman-elect Cori Bush said correctly that the concern is not about slogans. The concern is about Black people dying. The concern is about people not being safe.
If we can own the message of what we’re fighting for, people can disagree on the slogans all they want. But I do think us owning our own narrative gives us the chance to explain that we want to fully fund public safety. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish. We want public safety to actually mean something, and here’s how we do it. I think by doing those types of things, it gives people the chance to step back and take in what we’re really talking about and fighting for, and not just a narrative that Republicans want to lift up to keep people afraid.
The Green New Deal was similar. That was popular across party lines early on, but the rollout and the GOP’s weaponization of it made it something a lot of Democrats chose to avoid. Can it be reframed or reclaimed, especially in places like Kentucky, as an opportunity to rebuild?
First of all, you have to meet people where they are and honor the humanity in the space that they’re in. And part of that includes deeply appreciating and understanding the pain and trauma of a lot of folks in Kentucky, and in a lot of parts of the country where industries have declined and people have lost everything.
But then what you do in addition to that is you listen to folks. When you talk to folks and ask them what’s important to them, and ask them what they need, you start to talk through the core tenets of what is represented in the Green New Deal. I think that’s why we were able to build a brand of saying, look, let’s have a Kentucky New Deal. Let’s own this.
Because when you listen to folks, they want sustainable housing; they want clean water; they want clean air; they want infrastructure that is safe; they want to be able to access hospitals in rural areas; they want new industries and more opportunities to create ownership, good paying jobs, and wealth in their communities. They want it and when you listen to them, and we have those conversations, and you have to point out that that’s what we’re trying to accomplish with the Green New Deal, the response is, ‘Why don’t we have it?’
That’s why there’s no substitute for that deep organizing. When you create the types of relationship and trust, you can have deeper conversations, so that these slogans and catchphrases don’t shake the whole discussion because people know you, they know what you stand for, and they’re going to listen to you and give you a chance because they know who you are.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.