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Charles Booker’s primary win was historic. But his Senate run against Rand Paul faces a tough road ahead

Charles Booker speaks before a crowd gathered in Jefferson Square Park on the second anniversary of the police raid that resulted in the killing of Breonna Taylor.
Charles Booker speaks before a crowd gathered in Jefferson Square Park on the second anniversary of the police raid that resulted in the killing of Breonna Taylor.

Charles Booker won the Democratic nomination against six little-known candidates in this year’s primary election for the U.S. Senate, a walk in the park compared to the challenge he faces this November against incumbent Republican Sen. Rand Paul.

Paul is vying for a third term, and Booker has already made history as the first Black nominee in a federal election in Kentucky. But he’s hoping his candidacy will do more – reversing decades-long political trends in the Bluegrass State, which hasn’t sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since Wendell Ford’s last election in 1992.

In a recent interview, Booker says the stiff challenge doesn’t faze him.

“I think we have the chance to really build on this historic victory with more coalition building, issue-based organizing and investment in communities that get ignored. Based on what we’ve worked on in this campaign, we're going to blow Rand Paul out. And we absolutely will,” Booker said. 

Fresh off his primary win, Booker talked about how storytelling influences his approach to organizing, getting voters excited about the electoral process and one of his “Kentucky New Deal” plans:  universal basic income.

Booker sees the experience of his last primary run in 2020 where he lost the nomination to retired fighter pilot Amy McGrath less as a failure and more as a stepping stone for his Hood to The Holler initiative.

“In 2020, I was introducing a theory of us showing up in communities that hadn't seen someone running for office, come to their door and sit down with them and treat them like they mattered,” he said.

Booker said his campaign is seeing “small dollar national support” due to his organizing strategy which involves leadership boot camps, training young people to run for office and become citizen lobbyists.

His campaign reported raising more than $135,000 in the day after his primary win, with 70% of contributions coming from first time donors and an average donation of $41.

Still, Paul has a major fundraising advantage over Booker. Ahead of the primary elections, the incumbent Republican’s campaign haul totaled $18.5 million, while Booker raised just about $3.3 million. Paul is entering the General Election campaign with $8.6 million cash on hand, while Booker has a little over $470,000.

Booker employs a campaign strategy called “relational organizing,” amethod credited with helping the successful senate campaigns of Mark Kelly in Arizona and Raphael Warnock in Georgia in 2020. Candidates strive to build on existing relationships with friends and neighbors, craft solid narratives and encourage voters to one day run for office.

“I think the point of relational organizing isn’t just in winning elections. We’re building this movement in Kentucky that’s bigger than just this campaign, and that’s why it works. We’re building community,” Booker said.

A cornerstone of Booker’s campaign is trying to build an urban-rural coalition by drawing parallels between his struggles growing up in Louisville’s West End with the trials of coal miners in Appalachia.

Booker says politicians and powerful people have ignored poor people’s voices, no matter where they live.

“The truth of the matter is, people of Kentucky, those coal miners that have been working hard to keep the lights on? They knew those jobs were leaving. It's just that no one's been listening to them. I've talked to so many folks across Kentucky that want to see us build a sustainable future economy that isn't built on our loved ones getting sick, or working themselves into debt,” Booker said.

While the Kentucky Democratic Party has a history of fielding moderate candidates in statewide elections, Booker’s nomination marks a progressive shift. But political watchers predict his platform will make it harder to reach more moderate or conservative Democrats.

But Booker says issues like tackling climate change and canceling student loan debt can energize and unite a broader range of voters.

“These…aren't just fringe issues, they're not seen as radical anymore. So when I go to Washington, I'm not going alone, I'm going to bring the entire Commonwealth with me and I work with anyone that's committed to ending poverty and structural racism,” he said. 

“The narrative about Kentucky has been shaped by people like Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell, and it's not true. We are loving, we are hard working, we stand up for one another. And we're gonna prove it when we win this race.”

Booker also talked aboutuniversal basic income, one of the tenets of his “Kentucky New Deal” platform, which he says will lift people out of poverty and bolster important social services. The idea of financial freedom and worth shouldn’t have to be tied to hourly wage, Booker says.

“My idea of universal basic income is really, how do the people of Kentucky get an equity stake in the profits that we're creating for these big companies,” he said.

What works, and what doesn’t in Booker’s campaign strategy

Denise Gray, former deputy political director for Amy McGrath’s campaign, argues that Booker has a much better chance than McGrath did in 2020.

“Booker, he shows up in the areas that were ignored by the Republican Party and were also ignored by the Amy McGrath campaign for various reasons,” Gray said in a recent interview.

“He needs to continue to show up in spots that have been ignored, where Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell could have made a major impact but have refused to do so,” she said.

Gray says she’s wary of the “Kentucky New Deal” slogan, arguing the phrase doesn’t resonate in the state as much as it used to.

“It’s a red herring, because that could have worked well in a relatively blue state,” she said.

Support from the national party might be tough to come by for Booker. He hasn’t received nearly the support from donors and PACs that Amy McGrath’s well-funded 2020 Senate campaign did.

“His 2020 run really confirmed previously, for both Democrats here and in Washington, that the message is so broad and so progressive, that it can alienate Democrats here in the state of Kentucky. The National Democratic Party doesn’t translate well here in Kentucky, and I think they believe a progressive candidate with that record could be a risk,” Gray said.

Booker received endorsements from U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren for his 2022 campaign, but it remains to be seen if the wider Democratic establishment will throw its weight behind his candidacy.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the political arm that aims to elect more Democrats in the Senate, did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Booker’s campaign, but is backing candidates like Nevada’s Catherine Cortez Masto, Ohio’s Tim Ryan and Pennsylvania’s John Fetterman.

Another big hurdle for Booker is the overall image of his party in Kentucky. The once-dominant Democratic Partyhas been losing registered voters in Kentucky for years, and the number of Republicans will likely surpass Democrats for the first time in state history in the coming months.

Gray says libertarian-leaning Paul consistently mirrors the national GOP’s talking points, an easier lift for a politician trying to get elected statewide in Kentucky.

“Everything that he spoke about were the issues that the National Republican Party is putting out there and that they're hoping that they’d continue to keep the state red. There’s a continuity that I don’t think Booker is really getting with the Democratic party,” she said.

Republican strategist Tres Watson says Booker’s campaign is trying to replicate the 2020 Democratic victories in Georgia with staffers from Warnock’s campaign. But, Watson points out, Kentucky isn’t Georgia: it’s more conservative, less populous and isn’t going through the demographic changes other southern states are going through.

“We’re talking about a different demographic makeup here. Georgia is 31.9% African American, and here, Louisville accounts for most of the 8.5% African American population in the state, so it’s an inherently tough state to swing. They’re looking at Warnock and trying to replicate that effort, but the demographics of the state, the population and the voters just don't add up. I think that they've chosen an unwinnable path to base their campaign on,” he said.

According to Watson, Booker “does get Democrats excited about the electoral process,” and the challenge here, as a longtime community organizer says, is getting non-voters to show up and get involved.

“Getting Republican voters to change their minds is going to be tough right now, and that’s not where he should be investing his time and energy.”

Paul will be hard for Booker to beat, Watson says. Trying to knock off an incumbent senator means asking voters to change their behavior. They need a convincing reason to do so. 

“I don't think he's offering a moderate Republican who might be open to voting for somebody else. I don't think he's offering them something that they would want to go with,” Watson said.

Watson argues the stakes are different for a Democrat running for statewide office in Kentucky. Candidates have to walk a fine balance between being conservative or moderate enough to pick up rural areas, while also still getting the money and votes necessary to turn out the vote in populous, liberal Louisville and Lexington.

“If you go too far left to play to the bases that are in those two locations, you lose votes in the rural parts,” Watson said. “National Democrats have realized that pouring money into states that are going to be tough races where they're gonna be fighting tooth and nail to keep a 50-50 split, much less lose, is not going to be a good investment.”

And while Gray and other Democratic organizers are encouraged by Booker’s primary win, November is going to be a test for both Booker’s progressive platform and Paul’s libertarian-leaning, hands-off strategy with voters.

Divya is LPM's Race & Equity Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.

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