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ANALYSIS: Could Charles Booker Actually Beat McGrath And McConnell?

Matt Markgraf/WKMS

State Rep. Charles Booker, who announced on Monday that he is forming an exploratory committee for a possible U.S. Senate run for Mitch McConnell’s seat, will be a different kind of candidate for statewide office than Kentucky usually has. Kentucky Democrats often run fairly centrist people for major offices (think Andy and Steve Beshear), but I expect Booker will embrace unabashedly liberal policy goals like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. He is young (35 years old) and black. (Democrats ran an all-white slate of candidates for Kentucky’s statewide offices in 2019.)

Booker has a law degree. But he has not spent his time in the state’s elite law firms (like Andy Beshear and Daniel Cameron), instead serving in roles like director of strategic partnerships for a Louisville nonprofit and as an education and equity policy analyst at the Louisville Urban League. Democratic politicians in Kentucky often highlight their connections to more conservative, rural and white institutions and people, to downplay the notion that the Democrats are purely a party of people who live in cities and racial minorities. But I would expect Booker to emphasize that he lives in Louisville’s Russell neighborhood, which is about90 percent black.

Russell is poor, with a median household income of just above $17,000 (compared to about $46,000 in Jefferson County overall). So watch for Booker to run a campaign connecting the challenges of the black people he represents to those of low-income white people in the rest of the state, particularly Appalachia. In a press release, Booker announced his potential candidacy as “a movement of the people taking on the powerful.”

So if Booker follows through and runs for the Senate, I think he will be a very compelling candidate. But I’m not sure he will be a winning one. He has four big challenges:

Challenge #1: McGrath (and perhaps other Democratic candidates)

In one sense, McGrath bungled the rollout of her Senate campaign this summer. Her confusion about whether or not she would have voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court (she eventually  settled on no) annoyed liberals in the state. I don’t think Booker or others would be considering campaigns against McGrath if she had started off better.

That said, McGrath has already raised $10 million for her campaign, spent months courting activists in Kentucky and outside of the state and is likely to have the informal backing of the national Democratic Party. And remember, McGrath won a competitive Democratic primary for a U.S. House seat in 2018 in the Lexington area--she is fairly strong in the state’s second-biggest liberal stronghold.

Sports radio host Matt Jones has also formed an exploratory committee for this Senate seat. And Rocky Adkins, a longtime state representative and former gubernatorial candidate, has not ruled out a run. In short, I’m pretty sure McGrath will have a formidable opponent for the Democratic nomination (the primary is on May 19). I’m just not sure it will be Booker.

Challenge #2: Booker's lack of experience

Booker has won one election in his life, getting about 11,000 votes to win his state house seat last year. (He also won a competitive Democratic primary, with about 1500 votes.)

McGrath has never won an election, but about 145,000 people voted for her last year in her U.S. Houserace. We have no real sense of whether Booker will be a strong candidate in terms of presenting his policy ideas, answering questions or raising money. If someone experienced like Adkins gets in the race, Booker will have to convince Kentucky Democrats that they should choose a virtual newcomer to take on McConnell instead of a more seasoned figure.

And let’s be honest: it may be hard for some Kentucky Democrats to believe in Booker’s “electability” — that a young, black, decidedly-liberal man from west Louisville can win a general election in a state that is fairly white and conservative. (I personally don’t think Booker has any electability challenges beyond being a Democrat in a red state. Cameron is black and young and was just elected attorney general. But he is a Republican and has strongly embraced President Trump.)

Challenge #3: Fundraising

I don’t think Booker needs to match McGrath dollar-for-dollar. You could imagine him running a grassroots campaign in the style of New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

That said, he needs to raise some money. And he doesn’t live in a wealthy neighborhood or work at a big law firm. Booker may raise money from progressive donors across the country who have given money to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and want a real lefty candidate to challenge McConnell.  But I assume a lot of Democrats interested in defeating McConnell have already given to McGrath and might be reluctant to give to another Kentucky Democrat. They might even be wondering why Kentuckian Democrats can’t just rally around her--since she has already been in the race for months.

Challenge #4: McConnell and Trump

Let’s say Booker won the primary. He would be an underdog in the general election--he is a Democrat running in Kentucky. I know Andy Beshear was elected governor last week, but the other Democrats running lost, some of them by very large margins. Trump remains fairly popular in Kentucky, so I would expect strong GOP turnout next year. Sure, McConnell isn’t that popular, but I don’t expect the state’s teachers to make defeating him their mission, as they did with Gov Matt Bevin. Also, McConnell is a far more skilled politician than Bevin--having been elected over and over again in the state.

But here’s the thing about Booker — if he lost in the general election, he would likely do so in an interesting way. Kentucky Democrats in high-profile races often spend the entire general campaign trying to distance themselves from the Democratic Party and seem as centrist as possible. (Remember when Alison Lundergan Grimes, running for the Senate in 2014, wouldn’t say if she voted for then-President Obama?)

Sometimes this approach works (the Beshears), but it usually doesn’t — Republicans dominate the state government and Kentucky has one only Democrat (John Yarmuth) in its eight-person congressional delegation. McGrath is already running a fairly cautious campaign, downplaying liberal ideas. Maybe she can win simply because McConnell is unpopular.

But Booker will likely run an unabashedly liberal campaign. The risk for Democrats, if he is the party’s nominee, is that Kentucky’s conservative-leaning electorate hates his policy stands, so he loses voters who might have been OK with McGrath. The potential reward is that Booker really excites liberals in Louisville and Lexington and also connects with Kentuckians in rural areas with a populist message and gets people who usually stay home to turn out and vote.

My bottom line: I think Booker is an underdog against McGrath and would be a big underdog against McConnell. But I’ll be watching him and his campaign very closely — and you should too.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a national political writer based in Louisville. You can reach him via Twitter or e-mail.