The largest newspaper in Kentucky endorsed the insurgent Senate candidacy of Charles Booker this week, with a stark call for a politics that might actually matter. “This is a historic time in our state and nation. A time when young and old, black, white and brown are calling for change—not just incremental change, but sweeping reform that will usher in true equality and justice for all,” the editorial board of the Louisville Courier-Journal announced on Wednesday. “To get there, we need political leaders with insight and vision, who understand the challenges of our times and are willing to put forth bold ideas and fight for everyday people. Voters in Kentucky and around the country deserve the chance to consider candidates who have strident beliefs and the courage to go beyond scripted, milquetoast politics.”
Booker, a 35-year-old African American legislator from Louisville who champions an economic, social, and racial justice agenda, has rejected scripted, milquetoast politics from the start of his uphill bid for the Democratic nomination to take on the most powerful man in American politics, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. He has been teargassed during Black Lives Matter demonstrations in his hometown, where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African American health care worker, was shot and killed by Louisville Metro Police Department officers on March 13. He has traveled to Eastern Kentucky’s Harlan County to stand with coal miners who blocked a railroad line to demand unpaid wages and protest layoffs. He has argued that fundamental changes, including single-payer Medicare for All health care reform and a Green New Deal, are needed to address the needs of urban and rural Kentuckians.
Now, as the June 23 Kentucky primary approaches, his progressive campaign has a growing number of Kentuckians thinking that the #BookerBeatsMitch hashtag might actually be right. In addition to the Courier-Journal endorsement, the legislator just secured the backing of the state’s second-largest daily paper, the Lexington Herald-Leader, which wrote, “We understand that Booker is the underdog in this race; he has a steep climb to earn votes outside of his native Louisville, where he is well-known. But we believe this is a time for passion, not pragmatism. Charles Booker is the only one generating real excitement among young people and old. We believe he would move the state in the direction that Kentucky needs to go in the future so it can, at long last, move forward.”
Newspaper endorsements rarely carry as much weight with voters as newspaper editors might imagine. But these endorsements surprised a good many Kentucky political observers, and they have stirred talk about how Booker—who referred to the Courier-Journal declaration as a “humbling and absolutely critical endorsement”—might just be reworking the 2020 calculus in Kentucky. And perhaps nationally.
The papers, and 16 Democratic legislators from across Kentucky, including House Democratic leader Joni Jenkins, have chosen Booker over Amy McGrath, a retired Marine fighter pilot and defeated 2018 congressional candidate, whom the Herald-Leader describes as “the nationally anointed front-runner with a war chest of donations that might even rival McConnell’s usual corporate haul.” Senate minority leader Charles Schumer recruited McGrath to run for the Senate, and she’s secured plenty of financial backing from D.C. insiders. Yet she hasn’t exactly lit fires in Kentucky with an unfocused and often disappointing campaign that began last year with her saying she would probably have voted to put Brett Kavanaugh on the US Supreme Court. That statement drew such intense blowback that she quickly announced that “upon further reflection and further understanding of his record,” she would have rejected Donald Trump’s scandal-plagued nominee.
The Courier-Journal observed:
While Amy McGrath has broad support, as evidenced by her successful fundraising, she has not shown the progressive ideas and bold leadership necessary to move our state forward. She has been overly moderate, measured and cautious throughout this campaign, focusing more on her military service (which we applaud and sincerely respect) or her motherhood than offering a sweeping vision for the commonwealth—especially in these turbulent times,
Unfortunately, her message to voters has been unimaginative and uninspiring: “Let me tell you what’s wrong with Mitch McConnell instead of explaining why my vision for our commonwealth and our country is a better fit for Kentucky voters.”
We also believe the national Democratic Party was too quick to offer its full support and fundraising apparatus to a candidate who has never held public office and stumbled out of the gate when announcing her candidacy. McGrath’s self-described “common sense Kentucky Democrat” tagline—a campaign strategy to attract potential supporters of President Donald Trump who are looking for an alternative to McConnell—has fallen flat in these final weeks of the campaign.
Political fortunes are shaped by many factors, including money, name recognition, and endorsements. There’s no question that Amy McGrath has been the front-runner, thanks to the big-name and big-money support she got from Democrats in Washington. She fit the template for the sort of candidate D.C. insiders—and, surely, a good many Kentuckians—thought in the early stages of the 2020 election cycle was best positioned to take on McConnell.
But this election cycle has changed, radically, in recent months, as Kentucky and the rest of the country has been rocked by the coronavirus pandemic, mass unemployment, and, now, mass protests over police brutality. That’s created a new dynamic—and a different momentum. As the primary approaches, McGrath’s insider campaign has “fallen flat,” while Booker’s insurgent campaign has taken off.
There are no guarantees, especially in a year like this one. But sometimes, the right candidate is in the right place at the right time—and a different politics becomes possible. The Courier-Journal recognized this prospect in its endorsement of Booker:
His life experience is unlike that of other Kentucky candidates. The 35-year-old grew up in poverty in Louisville’s West End, living in one of Kentucky’s poorest ZIP codes. He knows what it means to go hungry, to be homeless, to struggle. Ending poverty is at the core of his mission. He’s passionate about it because he’s lived the struggle. In Kentucky, where 17 percent of people live in poverty—one of the highest rates in the nation—Booker’s message resonates.
Echoing the “not me, us” message of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders—who has endorsed his campaign—Booker says, “The movement is very real. Kentuckians are taking our power back, and we will not be stopped.”
If Booker’s right, Mitch McConnell could be in for a rough fall.