Kentucky is home to arguably the most consequential figure on the American political right in Mitch McConnell, who is up for reelection this November. And for the seventh time in nearly 40 years, the Democrats are poised to lose to him again. Following the standard liberal playbook, the Democratic leadership has lined up behind moderate Amy McGrath, once more betting on a “sensible centrism” that has failed time and again in one of the country’s reddest states.
McGrath’s Senate campaign comes on the heels of her unsuccessful run for Congress in 2018, when she lost in a key swing district to Republican incumbent Andy Barr. In many ways, McGrath resembles the typical, third-way Democratic candidate. A politically moderate military veteran, she has elite educational credentials and experience working in D.C. Her strategy is predictable: appeal to Republican voters by acting more like Republican legislators. She openly opposes Medicare for All and supports a hawkish and imperialistic approach to the military. Early on in the race, McGrath even bizarrely claimed to be running as a “pro-Trump” Democrat.
But trailing McGrath in the Democratic primary is underdog Charles Booker, a young, progressive Kentucky state representative. Booker’s bold leftwing views and policies, centered on the Green New Deal, offer Kentuckians an option never before tested in the Bluegrass state.
Booker is not a typical Democratic political candidate. While he does have a law degree from the University of Louisville, he is not an ex-prosecutor and doesn’t come from a family dynasty of politicians (like the current Democratic governor Andy Beshear), nor has he padded his resume by working for corporate firms. Booker is not a military veteran, like his two main primary opponents McGrath and Mike Broihier. Nor is he following the conventional strategy of Democrats running in red states by tacking to the right, like McGrath.
Despite the 2019 election of Beshear, whose moderate platform only barely defeated the then-most unpopular governor in America (Republican Matt Bevin), Kentucky is blood-red. It hasn’t gone blue for a presidential election since 1996. Both senators and five of Kentucky’s six members of the house are Republicans, and up until former Governor Bevin’s narrow defeat, Republicans controlled all branches of the state government.
Unlike McGrath, however, Booker doesn’t view these as reasons for Democrats to adopt more moderate policies. In fact, he takes the opposite view. During his tenure as a Kentucky state representative, Booker has sponsored attempts to pass all manner of progressive, leftwing policies, such as legislation to restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies, capping prescription drug costs, prohibiting public funding of charter schools, increasing the minimum wage, and regulating public utility rates. His campaign and progressive advocacy has garnered him endorsements from the Sunrise Movement, Brand New Congress, and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. He represents the first real opportunity for Kentuckians to test progressive leadership.
Like fellow millennial AOC, who hails from a working-class family and who worked as a bartender before her election to Congress, Booker comes from a working-class background. His parents never graduated high school. He is a Type 1 diabetic, and when he was young he often rationed insulin because his family couldn’t afford it. His mother used to skip meals so he could eat, and he still lives where he grew up—in the poorest zip code in Kentucky.
He got his political start at age 27, working for Kentucky’s Legislative Research Commission, a nonpartisan agency designed to fact-check and provide research for the Kentucky Legislature. In 2014, he and his wife appeared in an online campaign ad for Alison Lundergan-Grimes, then-Democratic Senate candidate and McConnell’s last challenger. In the ad, Booker openly criticized McConnell’s disregard for Kentucky’s poor. On the grounds of engaging in prohibited partisan activity, he was fired—a quaint consequence given the hyperpartisan valence of our current political era. Despite losing his job, Booker stood by his comments and has since doubled down on his progressive vision. After a one year stint directing the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, and an unsuccessful 2016 bid for the Kentucky State Senate, he was elected in 2018 to Kentucky’s House of Representatives for the 43rd district.
The lessons he learned growing up in poverty and surrounded by working-class family members, as well as the racial discrimination he has faced as a black man living in one of America’s most segregated cities, make Booker a markedly different candidate than the Ivy League-educated, former-McKinsey-intern types who usually run for these offices. “I’m one of about 70 grandkids. My mom is one of 11, and my grandparents had foster kids all through my life. I was taught early on about community, and it definitely gave me perspective about what it means to think about people outside of your own interests.”
Despite his law degree, Booker lacks the kind of manicured resume that the current Democratic leadership worships, which might sideline him in a party obsessed with elite credentials. However, Booker views his background as a unique advantage against an opponent like McConnell. “You need someone that understands policies and politics, has done it, knows how to build coalitions in crazy times, like during [former Kentucky Governor Matt] Bevin’s tenure, but you also need folks on the ground who are connected to the challenges Kentuckians face and are not a part of the political machine.”
But an uphill battle awaits. Even if he can overcome McGrath to capture the Democratic nomination, Booker then faces arguably the most powerful Republican in America not named Trump. Since his initial election in 1984, McConnell has almost always won reelection by double digits. In his most recent reelection (2014), he handily defeated former Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan-Grimes 56-40. Over the course of his nearly 40-year Senate career, McConnell has accumulated vast establishment power and worn many hats, including Senate Majority Whip, Senate Minority Leader, and most recently Senate Majority Leader. During this tenure, McConnell has been instrumental in pulling the Republican party rightward on virtually every front by ensuring rigid party loyalty, confirming hundreds of conservative judges, and, perhaps most importantly, engineering a virtual electoral Wild West by setting the stage for vast campaign finance deregulation made possible by the infamous Citizens United Supreme Court case.
Despite an early reputation as a “moderate” Republican, McConnell has consistently stuck to, and himself enforced, the Republican Party line, with his career votes against party totaling a measly 2.4 percent. In various profiles, his politics are described as being fueled by discipline, cunning, fear, and cynicism. He relishes power and winning above all else, remaining unfazed as he routinely tops lists of America’s most unpopular politicians. For McConnell, politics is not a personal brand, or a way to hang out with celebrities; it’s a means to create a merciless world in line with his reactionary views. To unseat him would be one of the most significant electoral victories for the left-of-center in modern American political history, arguably a bigger win than if Biden defeats Trump.
More than Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell is the avatar of the modern Republican Party. In the middle of Barack Obama’s first term, McConnell famously announced that his number one priority was to ensure Obama was a one term president. This bald admission embodies the Republican brand of obstructionist politics that has become the norm over the last decade. Since deliberately slowing congressional progress to a glacial pace, including the notorious blocking of Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland in 2016, McConnell has been able to divert all his energy to packing courts across the country with conservative judges to cement our current reactionary laws for generations. McConnell has also managed to pass significant legislation since Trump’s election, including 2017’s massive tax cuts for the rich. But for Republicans, when Democrats are in charge, inertia is the goal, and McConnell never hesitates to call never-ending legislative time outs. If we want any chance of a better world, we must resume the game by removing the biggest obstacle: Mitch McConnell. But how do we do that, after failing to do so for 40 years?
Like the best politicians, Charles Booker is not running for office out of a sense of personal ambition, but for the sake of others. Regarding most Kentucky politicians, Booker claims “they don’t see us, they don’t care about us, and they don’t hear us.” Such a statement may seem like typical political rhetoric, but Booker comes across as refreshingly genuine because he has witnessed firsthand the violent effects of generational poverty and racism. “I’ve had family enslaved in Kentucky. I’ve had family lynched in Kentucky. My grandfather fought for desegregation in Louisville….When I talk about things like needing Medicare for All, it’s because I nearly died two years ago from ketoacidosis after I was rationing insulin because I couldn’t afford it. The stuff I’m talking about is because I’m directly living it.”
In a state ranked 46th in overall poverty rate, Booker is certainly more authentic than rival candidate Amy McGrath, who hails from the wealthy Cincinnati suburbs of northern Kentucky, and whose campaign is built on the tepid incrementalism and technocracy of third-way neoliberalism. When McGrath questions, for example, why we are “spending billions of dollars” on a border wall “that can be defeated by a ladder,” she does so only to suggest that instead “we can use drones and better technology to do the same thing on a much cheaper level.” Booker appears to be so tired of these centrist concessions that he is willing to give up a safe seat in the Kentucky House of Representatives for a longshot chance to take down McConnell with an actual progressive platform. He is not content to watch Kentuckians continue to struggle while the Democrats nominate yet another pro-means-testing, pro-trapezoid candidate. When Kentuckians object to basic injustices like losing health insurance while suffering from black lung, or families complain about a lack of potable water, Booker supports legislation like the RECLAIM Act that would protect the health benefits of rural workers, but he does so with the long-term goal of Medicare for All in mind. McGrath, on the other hand, has never won an election, let alone worked in Kentucky government, and up until her unsuccessful 2018 congressional campaign has spent her career working in D.C. She typifies Kentucky’s usual brand of sterile, carpetbagger Democrats.
But McGrath continues to dominate the race. After outraising McConnell in the first quarter of 2020 with a massive $12.8M haul, the McGrath campaign is now only conducting polling against McConnell. McGrath has also obtained endorsements from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee as well as several big name Democrats, including former presidential candidates and current senators Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren. As the Democratic party rallies behind Joe Biden in the wake of Bernie Sanders’ suspension of his campaign, Kentucky appears to be mirroring much of the national party’s strategies, opting for a tried and failed recipe of political moderation.
Where Booker is perhaps weakest is his reluctance to publicly attack McGrath. At a primary debate in early March, Booker declined to criticize her directly, choosing instead to focus on the issues and claiming “there will be a later time to deal with how the party’s establishment is backing McGrath.” But even with a delayed primary now taking place on June 23, Booker is running out of time, and so are Kentuckians hoping for a fresh challenger to McConnell.
The contrast between McGrath and Booker is stark. Booker’s platform is simple and forward looking, compatible with the Sanders-style leftism that has grown so popular since 2016. He supports universalist policies like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, student debt forgiveness and free college, a universal basic income, cannabis legalization, systemic criminal justice reform, and more. McGrath, on the other hand, in the centrist Democratic tradition of being as uninspiring as possible, equivocates on all of these issues and instead supports languid half measures like the botched ACA and a public option. She also offers fatuous platitudes about climate change, and approves of debt-free higher education only in exchange for national service.
Booker expressed clear frustration about the Kentucky leadership’s priorities, detailing how they have warned him “not to talk too much about the issues,” lest he be seen as too blue in a blood-red state. Instead, he is told, he must convince voters he’s “not as bad” as Republicans—that famed Democratic strategy of playing perpetual defense in order to cater to an imaginary moderate coalition, content with always choosing the least bad of two bad options. The McGrath campaign, meanwhile, eagerly embraces a Republican-lite branding. After announcing her campaign in July 2019, she tried to outflank McConnell to the right by claiming he was obstructing Trump’s agenda in Kentucky. She even admitted she would have confirmed Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court, though she would later walk those comments back because of the backlash from Democratic voters.
Alternatively, Booker has drawn different lessons from the right, in particular from former Kentucky Republican Governor Matt Bevin and Donald Trump. “Democrats need to speak with clarity on issues; acknowledge the system is broken and that people are being left behind,” which he argues Republicans are better at doing, at least rhetorically. Rather than exploit that dejection as Republicans do, Booker wants to transform it into pressure to change the status quo. When I asked him how he would make this change real, Booker outlined a familiar-sounding strategy of turning out historically disenfranchised and ignored voters. Logan Gatti, former president of Kentucky’s Louisville Young Democrats, somewhat echoes this sentiment: “In business, it’s much easier to keep a customer than it is to acquire one. If we swing one moderate Republican to vote for the Democratic candidate at the expense of two Democratic voters, then we’ve lost the plot. Espouse the populist message and inspire people to go to the polls.”
But after the recent failure of the Sanders campaign, which was built on the idea of turning out traditional nonvoters, many are questioning the merits of such a theory. Asked about this, Booker notes that national campaigns are different from state campaigns. “In Kentucky, people want to know if they can trust you, and they will work with you even if they don’t agree with all your policies.” Rather than abandon the theory of reaching out to nonvoters in the wake of Sanders’ failure, Booker argues we should approach it on a case-by-case, or state-by-state, basis. Who knows what might resonate with Kentuckians as opposed to citizens of another state? Booker is adamant on this point: “The concerns of Kentucky’s most vulnerable are not as partisan as both the Democrats and the Republicans and especially Mitch McConnell want you to think,” he explains, and “the divide in Kentucky is more about the status quo than it is about the left or the right.” Ultimately, Booker believes the Democratic Party suffers from a poverty of imagination: “Campaigns are too often built around the idea of ‘working with what we have,’ and not around the idea of getting more people involved.” The logic of the Democratic leadership is this: “they know turnout is going to be low, so they’re not going to even try to turn out more voters; instead they simply strategize how to work within the margins they have,” which by definition reinforces the status quo.
But Booker unequivocally rejects the status quo. In his view, Amy McGrath and the tepid politics of what he calls “soft centrism” will never defeat Mitch McConnell, as we have witnessed so many times before. Over the past decade, Booker has traveled the state and heard from some of Kentucky’s most silenced, and he believes that Kentuckians want bold policies and change, not milquetoast concessions. Despite Republican domination of state government, and despite the Democrats’ counsel of moderation, Booker believes Kentuckians would welcome policies like the Green New Deal. He believes Kentucky, and coal country more broadly, is in fact the perfect place to jumpstart the GND movement. Contrary to conventional political wisdom, Booker argues coal country will get behind the GND because it presents an opportunity for states like Kentucky and West Virginia to lead the nation. With the coal industry in Kentucky almost completely shuttered, the chance to lead on clean energy is nothing short of life-altering. Booker just might be right.
Add to this the recent novel coronavirus pandemic, which has shut down states for months and cost millions of Americans their jobs and health insurance, and the ills of the status quo are on display with perfect clarity. “We have all the same problems as we did before the pandemic, but now we also have a pandemic,” adds Booker. Unlike Nancy Pelosi’s half measures and the generally conservative support bills she has proposed in the wake of the virus, Booker supports aggressive and far-reaching relief. A proponent of UBI well before the pandemic, Booker believes the current crisis represents a great opportunity for leftwing change. “It shows us that everyone is at risk. Everyone can lose their job, everyone can have the bottom fall out. When it happens to you, you start to see things differently. This pandemic demonstrates that my platform is not radical.”
Like all Americans, Kentuckians would benefit from Medicare for All. They would be better off if their jobs stopped moving overseas, if they had higher wages and more union support, and if their environment wasn’t being literally stripped away. Booker is the left’s best shot at fixing these and related issues in Kentucky. He believes he can sell Kentuckians on these changes, not only because they are the right and just policies, but also because he personally knows the plight of Kentucky’s worst-off. But he has a steep road ahead. The difference in funding between him and McGrath is not close. But what the young Booker has going for him is novelty. Kentucky Democrats have tried versions of Amy McGrath before and failed. Booker, more than anyone else, may foretell the shape of Kentucky politics to come. Securing the endorsements of nearly half of the Democrats in the Kentucky House of Representatives would seem to suggest just that.
It is said politicians campaign in poetry, but govern in prose; for young people and the working class, this has largely rung true since Obama’s first term, with Democrats campaigning on hope, but governing for the status quo. Gatti, the former president of Kentucky’s Louisville Young Democrats, fears that in Kentucky: “Republicans have done a superior job of training and involving young people in their political machine.” He believes potentially three different young Republicans could win back the Governorship in 2023. Booker, not McGrath, can be the left counter to that. Even if he fails to capture the Senate nomination in June, he and others like him—especially young people and those outside the traditional political establishment—must lead Kentucky away from the failed moderate centrism of the Democratic status quo to a progressive populism of the future.
Correction: This article has been updated to clarify that Booker is not the only candidate advocating progressive policies. But, in the author’s opinion, he is the most serious. Mike Broihier is also running on a pro-Medicare For All and pro-labor platform.