Two years after nearly causing a major upset in Democratic politics, it is Charles Booker’s turn to be the Democratic nominee for Senate in Kentucky where he’ll take his progressive message for a spin against Republican Sen. Rand Paul.
But, unlike Amy McGrath, the former fighter pilot who was feted by Democrats in 2020 until the moment she was decimated by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Booker has largely been ignored by national Democrats—in part because the feeling of impending Democratic doom grows stronger as the midterms draw closer.
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chair Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) told The Daily Beast that compared to Kentucky, there are other races the organization is watching more closely.
Booker’s fundraising numbers aren’t anywhere near McGrath’s—Paul is fundraising at almost six times his pace. What little polling there’s been shows him trailing Paul by double digits.
Booker’s progressive persona—though a means to potentially turn out the left flank of Kentucky voters—is sure to be weaponized by Republicans. Since the very start of his candidacy, Republicans have branded Booker as a socialist, with the National Republican Senatorial Committee suggesting they welcome him to the race.
Yet proponents of Booker’s candidacy say it’s a new era for Kentucky Democrats—and are urging the party not to turn their backs now.
“By turning a blind eye to the state of Kentucky, they are just giving up,” Denise Gray, former deputy political director for Amy McGrath’s campaign, told The Daily Beast.
Gray suggested there’s a disconnect between the national approach to Democratic politics and what works in the state. Voters here, she said, want human interaction and respond far better to knocks on their doors than pings on their phone.
Low-propensity voters throughout the state are just waiting to hear the right pitch on issues that matter to their community, she said.
“The progressive approach that [Booker’s] making, it actually can work in respects that Charles is going to areas that people never go to,” Gray said. “Political candidates don’t typically go and reach that untapped population.”
The strategy of going to untapped areas has been deployed by Democrats in several recent Senate races, including in Georgia, where both Sens. Raphael Warnock (D) and Jon Ossoff (D) claimed victory last year. In Pennsylvania, Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman has made a point of traveling to conservative counties that Democrats don’t generally touch in hopes of attracting a wider coalition in his race against Republican Mehmet Oz.
But to many, successful campaigns remain a game of advantages and disadvantages. And given the realities of running in such a deeply red state, others suggest Booker is too burdened with the latter.
This was not the case two years ago, when Democrats were buzzing with ambition for their chances in the Kentucky Senate race. Booker lost the 2020 Democratic nominating contest to McGrath by just over two percentage points, but despite that margin McGrath managed to gain national attention while running against McConnell and pulled in a mind-boggling $88 million in fundraising. She outpaced McConnell in their final individual receipts, marking a stunning run against the longtime senator who’s known as a fundraising juggernaut.
“People understood innately that the 2020 environment could be a very good one for Democrats on enthusiasm,” said Dan Kanninen, McGrath’s campaign manager during the final few months of 2020 and CEO of the political consulting firm Arc Initiative. He added that McGrath also benefited from having a compelling narrative behind her candidacy as a veteran and moderate.
In 2022, Booker’s position is different.
He’s running in the ashes of McGrath’s very expensive 2020 meltdown, attempting to rally a voter base told the impossible—a Democratic senator from Kentucky—could happen not long ago. Forecasts for Democrats' chances in the midterms are grim, leaving national players focused on protecting their most competitive seats and the party’s Senate majority. And Booker is unlikely to make the same enemy out of Paul as McGrath made McConnell.
“Rand Paul is milquetoast. [Democrats] don’t like him, the ones that know him, but they don’t wake up every day thinking he’s screwing my life up,” Jim Cauley, a longtime Democratic strategist in Kentucky, told The Daily Beast.
Cauley suspected Gov. Andy Beshear (D), the sitting governor of Kentucky, is the only state Democrat in the game currently that could beat Paul. Beshear skirted past the Republican nominee Matt Bevin in 2019 by just .4 points, giving some hope to the Kentucky Democrats.
Kanninen said Beshear’s win in 2019 served as a proof-point that victory was possible in Kentucky. But three years since, that impact may have faded. “You don’t have the same profile, you don’t have the same villain… you don’t have Trump on the ballot,” he added.
To be sure, it’s early in the electoral cycle, and political landscapes often change dramatically as November nears. But with more competitive states like Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Georgia in play, Booker’s likely to face an uphill battle in generating national momentum.
Kanninen did note that one of the benefits of small-dollar programs, like what Booker is running, “is you don’t need the national committee to be on your side.”
Booker has also received a number of endorsements from national progressives, including Sens. Cory Booker (NJ), Ed Markey (MA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Elizabeth Warren (MA), and some members of the so-called “squad” including Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush, among others.
But regardless of Booker’s standing, Paul isn’t expected to sit back on his way to re-election. Sean Southard, spokesperson for the Kentucky Republican Party, wrote in a statement that he expects a “robust” campaign from the sitting senator, adding that Paul’s “message of fiscal responsibility and individual liberty has made him one of the most popular statewide elected officials in Kentucky.”
Paul’s campaign did not return a request for comment. McGrath also did not respond to requests for comment sent to her new organization, the American SOS project.
Booker’s campaign said Paul’s war chest is proof they are being taken seriously. “It is clear that the KY GOP sees the threat our campaign poses, and is injecting millions into this race to blunt Charles Booker's momentum,” Booker campaign manager Bianca Keaton wrote in a statement.
Bolstering Booker’s premise of progressive policies being Democratic catalysts, he’s running on a “Kentucky New Deal,” calling for proposals “ending poverty, delivering quality healthcare to everyone in our Commonwealth, and fixing our crumbling infrastructure,” per his campaign website.
“The reality of this race is that Booker's vision for a Kentucky New Deal is not partisan. We've seen people who proudly wear MAGA hats walk up to Charles, shake his hand and offer their support for him. Charles has done what many other federal candidates and elected officials haven't, and that's listen to the voters of Kentucky,” Keaton added.
But Democrats like Cauley remain skeptical. He cast doubt that there will be a sudden rise in Democrats showing up in November on account of Booker’s progressive approach.
“Because they’ve been hiding in the woods?” he said.