The Sunrise Movement Is Trying To Help Progressive Underdogs Win Senate Seats

The environmental group is endorsing state Rep. Charles Booker to challenge Mitch McConnell in Kentucky.
Supporters of the Green New Deal participate in a May 13 rally at Howard University in Washington, D.C. The Sunrise Movement held an event for the final stop of the "Road to a Green New Deal" tour to "explore what the pain of the climate crisis looks like in D.C. and for the country."
Supporters of the Green New Deal participate in a May 13 rally at Howard University in Washington, D.C. The Sunrise Movement held an event for the final stop of the "Road to a Green New Deal" tour to "explore what the pain of the climate crisis looks like in D.C. and for the country."
Alex Wong via Getty Images

The Sunrise Movement, the group of youth climate activists who popularized the Green New Deal, is endorsing the potential Senate run of Kentucky state Rep. Charles Booker, the latest in a slew of endorsements aiming to boost progressive underdogs in 2020’s crucial Senate races.

“Replacing Donald Trump is obviously incredibly important, but simply replacing Donald Trump with a president that takes the science of climate change seriously won’t be enough to move forward,” said Evan Weber, the group’s political director. “If we can take back the Senate with Green New Deal champions, that’ll create a really strong mandate for change.”

Booker is the third Senate candidate the Sunrise Movement has endorsed this election cycle, following former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff in Colorado and Sen. Ed Markey in Massachusetts. All three are in competitive primaries with candidates who are seen as weaker on climate issues, and all three are relative underdogs.

The group aims to boost all three candidates with canvassing efforts aimed at young people, along with fundraising emails and digital advertising.

The group’s endorsement of Booker, timed to coincide with a Sunrise-backed Climate Strike and the United Nations climate summit in Madrid, could boost the African American state representative from Louisville, who is still weighing whether to challenge Air Force veteran Amy McGrath for the right to battle Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the general election next year.

Booker, 35, is still formally exploring a run. A supporter of both the Green New Deal and “Medicare for All,” he is hoping to emerge as a progressive alternative to McGrath, who holds more conventional Democratic views. He would start as a significant underdog: McGrath, who commands a massive email fundraising list, became a national star during her failed 2018 run for the House and has already raised more than $10 million for her primary campaign.

McGrath’s campaign declined to comment on Sunrise’s endorsement.

And if he’s somehow able to defeat McGrath, Booker would have to contend with McConnell, who has a fearsome political operation. Although Democratic Gov.-elect Andy Beshear’s recent victory gives Democrats some hope, a win over McConnell with Trump also on the ballot would still require a political miracle. (Trump won Kentucky by 30 percentage points in 2016.)

The other candidates the Sunrise Movement is backing face similarly difficult paths to victory. Democrats are confident they can beat GOP Sen. Cory Gardner in Colorado, but Romanoff is an underdog to former Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper in the Democratic primary. And preliminary polling showed Markey trailing Rep. Joe Kennedy III, a member of the nation’s preeminent political dynasty, in the Massachusetts Democratic primary.

The group is outright opposed to Hickenlooper. “His record is one that we disagree with,” said Weber, noting the former presidential candidate had questioned the Green New Deal and suggested working with the fossil fuel industry. (Climate activists in the state often mock Hickenlooper as “Frackenlooper” because of the former governor’s support for the natural gas industry.)

Hickenlooper’s campaign noted the Environmental Defense Fund, a moderate environmental group, had endorsed his campaign and that he had released a plan to combat climate change. However, he’s standing by his opposition to the Green New Deal.

“What I worry about with the Green New Deal is that certain parts of that I thought would be distractions,” he told students at Metropolitan State University Denver, according to a transcript posted by a reporter for the Denver Post. “I think that as legislation it would have to be more laser-focused to get through Congress rapidly.”

The ideological lines are blurrier in Massachusetts. Kennedy, 39, is pitching his candidacy as a generational change and his campaign touts the congressman’s support for the Green New Deal resolution introduced in the House in February. But Markey, 73, long a crusader for climate legislation, allied himself early on with Sunrise, lending the credibility of his four-decade career in Congress to a movement led by his party’s insurgent left-wing, becoming the elder statesman for the Green New Deal. Besides circling the wagon for one of its own, Sunrise has reason to be skeptical of Kennedy, whom the group criticized for owning as much as $1.75 million worth of stock in fossil fuel companies, including Exxon Mobil and Chevron.

Weber suggested a Markey victory would generate more momentum for the policy: “It’s hard to imagine Fox News and the right-wing not having a field day if Markey somehow loses.”

While the Green New Deal as a concept is only beginning to be turned into legislation, Sunrise defines it as a “10-year plan to mobilize every aspect of American society to 100% clean and renewable energy by 2030, a guaranteed living-wage job for anyone who needs one, and a just transition for both workers and frontline communities.”

After forming in 2017, Sunrise cut its teeth campaigning for progressive Democrats in 2018. But it didn’t gain national attention until November 2018 when it staged a high-profile demonstration in then-incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office demanding Democrats prioritize a “Green New Deal.” The protest made the label go viral.

In the year since, the group has leaned heavily into the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, aggressively pressuring the Democratic National Committee to host a debate focused exclusively on climate change. Just this past week, Sunrise released a new scorecard ranking the climate proposals of top candidates Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and announced plans to allow its rank-and-file to direct the group’s final endorsement.

Weber also said to expect additional endorsements in Senate races, especially in four states where the group recently launched field operations: Montana, Maine, Georgia and Iowa.

Democrats need to win at least three, and possibly four, GOP-held seats to win back control of the Senate in 2020. If they do, and they manage to win the presidency, the possibility for action on climate change is somewhat high: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has increased his focus on the issue in recent years.

Though Massachusetts is solidly blue and Colorado is a swing state that has favored Democrats in the recent past, Kentucky is a Republican-leaning state where a fading coal mining industry played a large role in the state’s economic development and culture for decades. But Sunrise Movement activists there believe they can sell the ambitious Green New Deal ― and a candidate that backs it ― to the state’s voters.

“Kentuckians have had to choose between good jobs and healthy communities for too long,” said Erin Bridges, a Kentucky native who serves as Sunrise’s national fundraising director and co-founder of the group’s Louisville hub. “We’ve had to live with decades of politicians on both sides of the aisle selling out our air and water for their bottom lines. And people are fed up.”

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