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Charles Booker had a rallying cry on the campaign trail in the Democratic Primary for U.S. Senate in 2020. As his stump speech was winding down — a passionate, free-wheeling spiel imploring people to embrace the bold vision of a progressive government — he would say “we’re gonna win this race.”
At a Frankfort rally in the middle of June, with the crowd sweating under a white tent behind a small brewery, he repeated the phrase again and again. Then, just as the crowd was starting to get loud, he stopped.
“We already won,” he said.
He didn’t and yet he did.
Booker lost at the ballot box but won the moment. He emerged from the primary with a strong base of enthusiastic supporters, a glowing and growing national profile, and likely frontrunner status in the 2022 race to challenge U.S. Sen. Rand Paul.
He caught lightning in a bottle. The question now, though, is does it still glow.
U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, said it’s very hard for any candidate to maintain political momentum for two years. “Because generally speaking, voters’ attention span is not that long,” he said.
There’s a cadre of candidates who were once the hot thing in politics, only to be discarded by voters when they tried to stretch their popularity and gain a bigger platform. Rand Paul in the 2016 Republican presidential primary. Beto O’Rourke in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. Amy McGrath for U.S. Senate.
McGrath’s past could be Booker’s future in his likely 2022 bid for U.S. Senate. She, too, was a candidate who fit a moment in 2018. She, too, came about three points shy in her first race for Congress against U.S. Rep. Andy Barr. She, too, tried to stretch that momentum into a Senate race two years later.
And when she couldn’t, when she out-raised and out-spent U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and still came up 20 points short, it raised the question of whether any Democrat can win a Senate seat in Kentucky.
“I don’t know that it’s a suicide mission,” Yarmuth said. “Obviously the odds are against anyone.”
A Pied Piper
Booker has not shied from the public spotlight since he lost his election last year.
Last month, he relived the highlights of his 2020 campaign and teased his Senate run on KET (Karthik Ganapathy, Booker’s communications consultant, would not confirm whether Booker will launch an exploratory committee this month and did not respond to a request for an interview).
Booker is writing a book about his 2020 campaign, the Louisville Film Society is making a documentary about it and he formed a political non-profit called Hood to the Holler that employs his campaign’s slogan and some of his former campaign workers.
In 2020, because he surged so late, Booker was given the rare gift in politics of being able to define himself. His post-campaign publicity has enabled him to portray himself as someone fighting the establishment.
He was able to bill himself as a political outsider even though was the only elected official in the Democratic primary, the only one sitting on the Democratic State Executive Committee (as recruitment chairman), and the only one who had served in state government through much of his career.
But the outsider candidate might now be the official choice of the Democratic establishment. Booker has a D.C. consulting firm. He had the endorsements of stalwart Kentucky Democrats like Greg Stumbo and Alison Lundergan Grimes in 2020. If national Democrats decide to put money into the Kentucky election — which is not guaranteed, given the 50-50 split in the Senate and the results of Kentucky’s past five Senate races — it will likely go to him.
McGrath, too, ran as an outsider in her first race for Congress. But by the time the U.S. Senate primary rolled around, she was being knocked as Washington’s “hand-picked” choice to challenge McConnell.
More than anything, McGrath fell into the same trap that most Democrats have fallen into in recent years. As a Democrat in a conservative state, she tried to straddle the chasm between how Kentuckians are registered politically and how they actually vote in federal races, by making appeals to former President Donald Trump’s voters. She fell in.
“I think she was a little bit… you couldn’t put your finger on her,” said LaDonna Rogers, the Democratic Party Chairwoman in Barren County. “People in Kentucky aren’t very forgiving. You make a mistake and people don’t forgive.”
Yarmuth said those types of feelings about a candidate have the biggest impact on a campaign’s success.
“I think voting is a lot more visceral than intellectual,” Yarmuth said. “And the intellectual vote is never persuadable.”
The visceral side is Booker’s biggest strength.
His earnest speeches, as he went from one Black Lives Matter rally to the next across the state, helped build the support and publicity that gave him the spotlight.
“He definitely has a pied piper sort of way about him that people want to follow him,” said Rep. Angie Hatton, D-Whitesburg. “He’s so enthusiastic and gives off, you know, such a positive energy. I think that if you broaden the sorts of issues he talks about, to include the things that really matter to rural folks, he might find an audience here.”
So far, Booker’s been trying to maintain momentum by staying involved. He gave up his seat in the state House of Representatives to run for U.S. Senate, but still testified in favor of a bill banning no-knock warrants after the Louisville Police Department killed 26-year-old Breonna Taylor last year.
Booker’s political non-profit’s tax forms are not yet publicly available, so it’s difficult to tell how much it has raised and how it is spending its money. But based on Facebook posts, it has raised money for flood relief, held virtual conversations about politics and done volunteer and candidate training.
“Charles has been working every day to maintain that momentum and working around the state,” Yarmuth said.
A Republican state
Booker’s Hood to the Holler slogan leaves out an entire slice of Kentucky. To get off I-65 and onto the Western Kentucky Parkway is to head into Republican territory at 70 miles-per-hour. A part of the state once controlled by people like Wendell Ford and Happy Chandler is now the home of Sen. Rand Paul.
In Glasgow, Rogers, the local Democratic Party chairwoman, is blunt about the state of politics in Kentucky.
“People in Kentucky are going to vote for Republicans,” Rogers said.
That isn’t to say the right candidate for Democrats, or the wrong candidate for Republicans, couldn’t change people’s minds, she said, but she’s watched rural Kentucky become more and more conservative.
“I think the Democratic Party has to put up good, quality candidates and it’s going to take very specific people who can win,” Rogers said.
To her, that means moderate candidates, more similar to U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., than U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Ma.
Booker is more liberal than the typical Democratic candidate in Kentucky, including McGrath who was billed as “too liberal for Kentucky.” In his 2020 race, his platform included a universal basic income, support for the Green New Deal, gun control, abortion rights, Medicare for All, legalizing cannabis and advancing the conversation on reparations.
Can a progressive candidate win in KY?
There’s an ongoing fight within the Democratic Party about what type of candidates are necessary to win in Kentucky.
The voters in Kentucky are not a monolith. There are progressives in conservative Letcher County, just like there are conservatives in Louisville. That means it isn’t difficult for a Democrat to go to Whitesburg or Inez or Morehead and get an audience, but it is hard for Democrats to win Letcher County, Martin County or Rowan County.
The progressives and moderates in the Democratic Party fight over this all the time. The progressives argue that winning requires a candidate who can get progressives in rural counties involved while running up the margins in Louisville and Lexington. The moderates argue that there simply aren’t enough progressives in the cities to win and that Democrats need to run more middle-of-the-road candidates to build a broad coalition of voters.
In 2020, both progressive and moderate Democrats lost up and down the ticket. Republicans were given double-digit victories in congressional races and added to their super-majorities in the General Assembly.
“The fact is, neither of those groups won,” Hatton said. “We didn’t win rural areas, we didn’t win metropolitan areas, we didn’t even win the suburbs places like Richmond, and Owensboro.”
Booker’s candidacy would test whether progressive candidates can win in Kentucky, and in red states across the country.
“Booker’s task won’t be to energize the progressives,” said Matt Erwin, a Democratic campaign consultant. “It will be to energize the moderate voters to join a progressive-led coalition.”
That means he still would have to convince Kentuckians, who gave President Donald Trump a 26 percentage point victory last year, to elect a candidate who supports policies Republicans have effectively branded as socialism.
All in a year when abortion, always a hot-button issue in the political divide, will be on the ballot in the form of a constitutional amendment asking voters whether they want to make it clear that there is no right to an abortion in Kentucky’s constitution.
“I do not think a progressive can win in Kentucky right now statewide,” said former state Rep. Russ Meyer, D-Nicholasville. “No way.”