Kentucky's Youngest Black Lawmaker Shakes Up Senate Race Against Mitch McConnell After AOC, Sanders Endorsements

The tide in the Democratic Senate primary in Kentucky may be turning as progressive state legislator Charles Booker gains momentum in a race that will determine who takes on Mitch McConnell in the general election this November.

Over the past week, Booker has received a wave of endorsements from Senator Bernie Sanders, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and two of Kentucky's highest-circulation newspapers.

"Right now, he's got the clear momentum," said Christian Motley, a Democratic strategist from Lexington. "We're a week and a half out from primary day and we've got a race on our hands."

Al Cross, a longtime Kentucky political commentator, agreed that Booker is "the candidate of the moment"—not only because of the endorsements but also because of his response to protests for police reform.

Booker, the youngest black lawmaker in the state, has been visible at the protests for the Black Lives Matter movement following the deaths of Kentucky residents Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old EMT whom police shot and killed in her own apartment, and David McAtee, a barbecue restaurant owner who was killed by law enforcement during the demonstrations.

"This is a state where race still is a subconscious bias and if not conscious," Cross said. "How well [Booker] does will be one indicator if the state has shifted its attitudes along with the country."

Sanders commended Booker for "showing up on the frontlines" amid the unrest. Ocasio-Cortez also praised him for "building the kind of principled, inclusive, and winning coalition in Kentucky that can inspire positive change" and said that the Senate "will be a better place with him in it."

Both lawmakers broke ranks with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in order to back Booker. The DSCC, the largest fundraising machine for the chamber, backed former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath when she launched her campaign in the summer of 2019.

While there has been no public polling for the state's Democratic primary, which will take place on June 23, McGrath has long been the presumed frontrunner. Earlier this week, a survey showed McGrath leading McConnell in a head-to-head matchup by 1 point.

But Booker's recent momentum has allowed him to purchase a $400,000 ad buy across the state criticizing McGrath for her moderate platform. Booker, along with fellow candidate Mike Broihier, is running a more progressive campaign that includes policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. The ad calls McGrath a "pro-Trump Democrat" after she said McConnell wasn't helping President Donald Trump on certain issues.

Still, McGrath has more money in the bank than any candidate—including McConnell. The latest campaign finance filings show she raised $11 million from April 1 to June 3 and has more than $19 million left. Booker, on the other hand, raised $476,000 and has just 285,000 cash on hand. Though his campaign told the Louisville Courier-Journal it raised nearly $700,000 in the first eight days of June.

"We know Amy has money and we know Charles has momentum. What's still left in question is whether it's enough," Motley said.

Past races in the Commonwealth have shown that last-minute upsets are possible. McGrath's own congressional contest in 2018 is an example. Heading into the state's Democratic primary, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray was considered the strongest candidate. McGrath ended up defeating him by less than 4 points and went on to challenge Republican incumbent Andy Barr in what was one of the closest races of the election cycle.

Booker has pointed to the endorsements as evidence that he's putting out "the right message at the right time."

"I am standing for Kentuckians, I am fighting for the Commonwealth I love, and the future I know we deserve," he said in a statement on Twitter. "Kentucky is ready to lead, and the country is standing behind us. We will win this primary, beat Mitch McConnell, and transform our future."

Cross also noted that the endorsements were "a good housekeeping seal of approval for a lot of people who may be wary of an urban candidate who doesn't look like people they are used to voting for." But he said the endorsements from the Louisville Courier Journal and Lexington Herald-Leader may carry more weight with Kentucky voters, who are much more conservative than Sanders or Ocasio-Cortez.

Whoever wins the Democratic primary will likely face an uphill battle against McConnell. Despite his unpopularity at the national level, the Senate majority leader has won six straight elections since entering Congress in 1984. Nonpartisan election forecasters such as the Cook Political Report and Sabato's Crystal Ball are still ranking the general election race as "likely Republican."

charles booker KY senate candidate
Charles Booker, the youngest black lawmaker in Kentucky, is running to unseat Mitch McConnell. Charles Booker/Facebook