As Charles Booker chatted with a group of about a dozen voters in Berea, Kentucky, in early February, his month-old bid to take on Senator Mitch McConnell was already in trouble. Winning the Democratic primary with an unabashedly progressive platform in a deep-red state was always going to require a few breaks, but Booker’s path to the nomination was looking especially narrow. The Kentucky state representative was barely registering in his own polls for the state’s Democratic primary, the most powerful senators in the country were lining up behind his opponent, and his campaign was on the verge of an internal shake-up that included the hiring of a new campaign manager.
Around the same time, former fighter pilot and 2016 congressional candidate Amy McGrath, the favorite in the race, held a campaign fun run through the streets of Covington with dozens of sign-wielding supporters. Then she had pizza with dozens more and posted a well-produced video of the whole affair to her social media channels. One attendee of the Booker event posted a blurry picture on Instagram.
It’s little wonder that some close to Booker questioned the wisdom of his attempt to leap all the way to the U.S. Senate before the end of his first term in Frankfort, especially given McGrath’s support from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and a nationwide fundraising operation that has netted more than $40 million. In order to run, Booker had given up a safe seat in the statehouse, where his passionate and occasionally triggering floor speeches — one caused a red-faced Republican colleague to shout “Sit down!” from across the House floor — made the 35-year-old Booker one of the Kentucky Democratic Party’s brightest stars. His political future was obvious, but the timing wasn’t. Some close watchers in Louisville speculated that he might even be setting up an eventual run for mayor.
Then everything changed. Amid protests in his hometown over the killing of Breonna Taylor — during which Booker led marches and inhaled tear gas — and a surge of online fundraising, Booker has gone from progressive upstart known by few outside of Kentucky, to an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren–endorsed “insurgent” with an actual shot, albeit still a long one, at winning the nomination. He’s racked up endorsements from major newspapers and big names in Establishment Kentucky politics. He’s pulled in nearly $3 million in donations since June 3. He has inspired a trending topic, appeared on national news programs, and last Thursday a poll had him leading McGrath by eight points among registered voters in Kentucky.
“We’re gonna win this race,” Booker told a crowd of supporters in Bowling Green on Friday. “We’re going to win THIS race. We are going to win … this … race. We. Will. Win.”
Three weeks ago, a Booker adviser put the race in terms anyone from Kentucky could understand. Booker’s campaign, he said, was akin to an underrated 15 seed in the NCAA tournament taking on a vulnerable two seed. Asked this weekend if he wanted to update the analogy, he said, “It’s an eight versus nine game. And I think we’re the eight.”
A few months ago, Booker looked more like he was headed for the NIT. According to his own internal polling, his support increased from 7 percent in January among Democratic primary voters, to 11 percent in April, to just 13 percent in May. At the time, his campaign hoped to bring in enough money to spend $150,000 on digital ads in the closing days of the campaign. With the coronavirus pandemic upending traditional campaigning, Booker participated in Zoom conferences and cultivated his online following, both by attacking McConnell and posting father-daughter TikToks.
At the start of April, expectations were modest. “We hadn’t given up, but knew that without a break of two, we might only be working to get 40 percent and to preserve his political capital,” Booker’s adviser said.
Roughly a month before the primary, which was pushed back a month by the pandemic, 19 members of the House Democratic Caucus (including — full disclosure — my wife) endorsed their colleague’s Senate bid. The list included legislators from Kentucky’s urban centers and legislators from coal country. House Democratic Leader Joni Jenkins took a swipe at McGrath, saying that Kentucky voters “will not be bought.”
The next day a poll showed McConnell leading a generic Democratic opponent by just three points. The result supported the Booker campaign’s belief that, if voters learned about him, they would choose him over McGrath.
The biggest turning point in the race came on May 28. Spurred by protests over George Floyd’s killing and the release of a 911 call from the night police killed Breonna Taylor, protesters took to the streets of downtown Louisville to demand justice. A few days later, beloved local BBQ proprietor David McAtee was killed by the National Guard not far from Booker’s own home in Kentucky’s poorest zip code. The next morning, Booker was among a group of leaders who calmed tensions between agitated neighbors and police.
Cassia Herron, chairperson of the grassroots organization Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, was there too. She said Booker helped negotiate peace with police, convincing them to put down their weapons as angry mourners gathered. “That’s the kind of leadership I will follow. That’s the kind of leadership I want representing me,” she said. “Charles has continued to show up and hear people and encourage folks in ways we haven’t seen from many other elected officials.”
His near-daily presence at Louisville marches and rallies made him a regular on the local news. He appeared alongside Mayor Greg Fischer at a press conference to demand “justice, and accountability and humanity for the people in our city.” He led a march with rapper Jack Harlow and Timberwolves guard D’Angelo Russell.
Booker’s campaign adviser said the combination of earned media and the direct evidence of his leadership abilities led to a surge in donations as people eager to support him saw that he was “meeting the moment.” Booker’s also a young Black man at a time when society is grappling with its treatment of people who look like him. Issues that he has talked about for years — structural racism, generational poverty, and criminal-justice disparities — suddenly felt more vital than ever.
And it wasn’t just donors who noticed. Booker’s hometown newspaper, the Courier-Journal, cited his work “on the front lines with people who are crying out for justice” in its endorsement. The Lexington Herald-Leader’s endorsement credited him with “seizing a moment of possibility for revolutionary change.”
Matt Jones, a popular Kentucky sports radio host who wrote a book called Mitch, Please! instead of launching his own Democratic bid for the Senate, said in his endorsement video that Booker in the past few weeks has “developed into a leader Kentucky can be proud of.” Booker mentions the Jones endorsement often on the campaign trail because it illustrates his argument that his appeal doesn’t end at Louisville’s city limits. Booker often talks about uniting Kentuckians “from the hood to the holler” and Jones’s support suggests he might actually be able to do it.
The viability of issues such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, which Booker supports, is questionable in ancestrally Democratic but culturally conservative Eastern Kentucky. Cara Stewart, who served as chief of staff for the Kentucky House Democrats during Booker’s time there, said his policy positions are secondary to who he is. “I never had to try to explain to Charles why a bill was good or bad because it had a disparate impact on a specific population,” Stewart said. “That’s what you should expect of leaders. You should expect them to think about everybody, but when you say everybody, most people don’t include everyone. Charles truly does.”
Booker’s policy positions would obviously matter in a general election though, especially against McConnell’s notoriously vicious campaign. That’s part of McGrath’s electability argument. In the ongoing debate over whether a Democrat can win in Kentucky, Booker and McGrath are avatars of two competing schools of thought. Booker makes the case that a populist progressive candidate, “a real Democrat” as his first TV ad says, can mobilize a winning coalition of “young and old, Black, brown and white,” rather than rely on moderate swing voters to defeat McConnell.
According to people like Chuck Schumer, who last week said McGrath is “our candidate” and predicted that she will win, moderate Democrats are best suited to compete against Republicans in states like Kentucky. The approach has alienated many progressives, who balked at McGrath saying she’s eager to work with President Trump on policies that benefit the state, and rolled their eyes when she said she would have voted to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh then reversed course within a day. But money kept flowing, much of it from out of state. As of June 3, she’d raised more than $41 million and had $20 million on hand. Her campaign remains confident in its position. Three recent internal polls show her leading Booker by double digits, a spokesperson said over the weekend. That lead grows among those who have already taken advantage of absentee voting, made available to all registered voters due to the pandemic.
“We have faith that Kentuckians know Amy McGrath is the best candidate to fight for them and to defeat Mitch McConnell,” said campaign manager Mark Nickolas. At least one political expert agrees. Booker “has surged at just the right moment,” political analyst Larry Sabato told the Courier-Journal this week. “Is it large enough to overcome her lead? Maybe, although I wouldn’t bet on it.”
McGrath’s campaign isn’t taking any chances. It’s using its considerable war chest to blast out $3 million in ads over the last week of the campaign, touting McGrath’s connection to Northern Kentucky, where she’s from, and another invoking the name of George Floyd (though, notably, not Breonna Taylor). Booker’s campaign has rocketed past the mid-pandemic goals of spending in the low six figures on digital ads. Now, it’s spending $75,000 a day online and has spent more than $1 million on TV ads in the past couple weeks. After a barn-burning three weeks, reaching every voter is now possible. The key question, though, is it too late?