POLITICS

Kentucky’s Youngest Black State Lawmaker Wants To Challenge Mitch McConnell

State Rep. Charles Booker, who backs Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, would join a busy Democratic primary field.
Kentucky state Rep. Charles Booker (left) said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has left Kentucky behind.
Kentucky state Rep. Charles Booker (left) said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has left Kentucky behind.

Kentucky state Rep. Charles Booker (D), who in 2018 became the state’s youngest Black elected lawmaker in nearly a century, announced Monday that he would test the waters for a 2020 campaign against U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R).

Booker, whose legislative district spans Louisville, has been considering a run against McConnell for months. His decision to launch an exploratory committee comes just a week after the state’s Democratic attorney general, Andy Beshear, upset unpopular Republican Gov. Matt Bevin in a heated gubernatorial contest ― a win that has given Kentucky Democrats hope that they have a shot at ousting McConnell a year from now.

Booker opened his electoral effort with a broadside against McConnell, who has been in the Senate since 1985 and is seeking a seventh term in 2020. (The Democratic lawmaker was born a month before McConnell won that first Senate election.)

“You know the name of the man I’m talking about, but he doesn’t know your name,” Booker said of McConnell in a two-minute video that accompanied Monday’s announcement. “He doesn’t see you in the hospital bed, or in the checkout line, or at the safety drills in your classroom. He doesn’t see you at all.”

Booker argued that Kentucky hasn’t benefited from the power McConnell has accrued over three-plus decades in Washington.

“Since we sent Mitch McConnell to Washington, he’s become one of the richest politicians in America ― but Kentucky has been left behind,” Booker said in his Monday release. “The more power Mitch McConnell has gained in DC, the more we’ve lost here at home.”

If he ultimately does run, Booker could become the first Black candidate to win a major party’s Senate nomination in Kentucky’s history. If he won the general election, he would be the first Black Democrat to win a statewide election in Kentucky. (Attorney General-elect Daniel Cameron (R) last week became the first Black candidate to win a statewide election independently in Kentucky. The first Black candidate to win any statewide election there was Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton, who ran on the ticket with Bevin in 2015.)

Booker would join a Democratic primary field headlined by former Lt. Col. Amy McGrath, the onetime Marine pilot who announced a run against McConnell in July. 

In Monday’s release, Booker painted himself as a progressive voice who could offer a new vision for Kentucky and pledged that his campaign would mark the launch of a “bold, unapologetic populist movement” in the Bluegrass State. 

The would-be candidate, who was raised in Louisville’s predominantly Black west end, said his experience growing up in poverty, acquiring student loan debt to graduate from college, and paying more than $1,000 a month for insulin as a diabetic has given him first-hand experience with some of the biggest issues facing voters. He would run on a platform that supports a Green New Deal to address climate change, a “Medicare for All” health care plan (a key issue in the Democratic presidential primary), poverty reduction, and support for workers and organized labor.

“This isn’t the start of a campaign,” Booker said. “This is the beginning of a movement. A movement of the people taking on the powerful. A movement of Kentuckians whose voices haven’t been heard.”

He is positioning himself as the Bluegrass version of the progressive insurgents who have filed to run in other key Senate races in Colorado, North Carolina and Texas. 

McGrath, who narrowly lost a congressional race against Rep. Andy Barr (R) in a central Kentucky swing district last year, was recruited into the race by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Her campaign launch via a viral ad generated enthusiasm among national Democrats and progressives eager to take out McConnell; multiple Senate Democrats tweeted their support. And after proving herself a capable fundraiser in 2018, she is once again hauling in cash: McGrath raised nearly $11 million in the third quarter of this year, a record total for a Kentucky Senate candidate.

But McGrath stumbled in the early days of her campaign when she appeared to cozy up to supporters of President Donald Trump and said she would have voted in favor of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court (a position she later changed). In Kentucky, her rocky start generated calls for potential primary opponents to jump into the race. 

Matt Jones, the host of a popular statewide sports radio show, is also considering a run against McConnell. Last week he suggested that the Kentucky GOP’s decision to file a complaint with the Federal Election Commission that led to his removal from the air may help push him into the race.

This fall, Booker appeared alongside striking coal miners at the Blackjewel mine in Harlan, where employees fought for their final paychecks after the company suddenly went bankrupt. And in September, he appeared at a Youth Climate Strike event in Louisville.

In the Kentucky state House, where the GOP holds a supermajority, Booker has sponsored legislation to automatically restore voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences, which is a priority of the incoming Beshear administration. Booker has also challenged Republican efforts to further restrict abortion rights in the state. During one abortion debate in 2018, a white GOP lawmaker told Booker to “sit down” as he spoke on the floor, an incident that Booker later suggested was fueled by racism and discrimination.

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