Democrats have to grab a bunch of Republican-held US Senate seats in 2022 in order to expand control of a chamber that has proven to be the biggest barrier to the progressive changes proposed by the Biden administration and approved by the House of Representatives.
Some 2022 races are already understood as essential. Everyone knows that Democrats have to go big in Pennsylvania, where Republican Senator Pat Toomey’s decision not to seek reelection has created an open-seat race in a state where the party won the governorship in 2018 and the presidential race in 2020. The same goes for Wisconsin, where Democrats are already lining up to take on Senator Ron Johnson, a wild-eyed conspiracy theorist who hasn’t yet announced that he will seek a new term but is being encouraged to run by Donald Trump. Open seats in North Carolina and Ohio will also be seriously contested.
But what about Kentucky?
On the surface, incumbent Republican Rand Paul looks to be in solid shape in the Bluegrass State. Once a political battleground, Kentucky is a lot redder than it was in the 1990s when Bill Clinton carried the state twice and Democrat Wendell Ford was comfortably winning reelection as the state’s senior senator with 63 percent of the vote. Paul may embarrass himself on a regular basis in Washington—especially when the ophthalmologist gets into arguments with Dr. Anthony Fauci about whether to wear a mask to prevent the spread of Covid-19—but the Republican was elected with 57 percent of the vote in 2010 and 56 percent in 2016.
So why bother?
First, Kentucky is not so Republican as all that coverage of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell might make it seem. The state has a Democratic governor, Andy Beshear, who has gotten high marks for his handling of the pandemic and maintains a 55 percent favorable rating, according to a February Mason-Dixon Polling Strategy survey. Just 36 percent of Kentuckians disapproved of the job he’s doing. While Beshear bows to bipartisanship—he has to, in a state where Republicans control both chambers of the legislature—the governor has had considerable success in advancing progressive initiatives to fund public education, expand access to health care, restore voting rights to more than 170,000 nonviolent offenders, and restrict the use of no-knock warrants in the state where 26-year-old emergency medical technician Breonna Taylor was shot and killed in 2020 by Louisville police during a raid on her home. At the presidential level, Trump was popular in Kentucky, but Democrat Joe Biden ran four points better in the state in 2020 than Hillary Clinton did in 2016, and Democrats flipped a key state Senate seat in a special election last year.
Second, Rand Paul is not exceptionally popular. The senator has had his share of bad publicity. It’s not just that his high-profile tussles with Fauci have made him seem desperately anti-scientific. There’s also the lingering legacy of a very weird dispute with a neighbor over yard waste. Only 47 percent of the Kentuckians surveyed by Mason-Dixon said they would vote for Paul. That’s not a miserable number, but it suggests there is a reasonable level of openness to an alternative.
Third, Democrats might actually put up a candidate with a plan to unite urban and rural voters in a groundbreaking coalition. That candidate is Charles Booker, who almost won the party’s nomination last year with one of the most inspired campaigns in the state’s modern history. As a little-known contender who started with almost no money and no statewide organization, Booker built a movement that linked Black voters from Louisville with white voters from small towns in Eastern Kentucky’s coal country. He said his campaign stretched “from the hood to the holler,” and, when the votes were counted, it was clear Booker was tuned into an emerging political reality that most Democratic strategists had yet to recognize.
What Happened in 2020?
But the 2020 deck had been stacked against Booker from the start. Senate Democratic leaders and the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee had followed the predictable pattern and recruited a centrist with a military résumé, Amy McGrath, to take on Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. McGrath had lost a US House race two years earlier, and her 2020 Senate bid was characterized by stumbles that suggested she was headed for another defeat. D.C. Democrats stuck with McGrath, pouring money into her campaign and discouraging primary challengers.
But Booker, a first-term state legislator from Louisville and the state’s youngest Black lawmaker, would not be dissuaded. He mounted an unapologetically progressive campaign that raised up a unifying vision of economic, social, and racial justice. Booker joined Black Lives Matter marches in Louisville seeking justice for Breonna Taylor, and he traveled to Eastern Kentucky’s Harlan County to stand in solidarity with coal miners protesting layoffs and payment of salaries with bad checks. Along the way, he earned the endorsement of the state’s largest newspaper, the Louisville Courier-Journal, which announced, “Frankly, it’s time to shake up the establishment, and Booker, who declares he’s ‘running against the status quo,’ is the right person for Democrats to consider.” The paper also rebuked party leaders in Washington for putting their thumbs on the scale for McGrath, explaining:
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.
The dynamic vision that Booker outlined in his 2020 primary campaign took him from a 65 to 7 deficit in the polls in January 2020 to a near tie with McGrath on primary election day, when he won 43 percent to the party pick’s 45 percent. Kentucky’s Lexington Herald-Leader observed, “Booker lost at the ballot box but won the moment.”
In November, McGrath fell far short in her fall race against McConnell, securing just 38 percent of the vote to the Republican leader’s 58 percent. With a campaign budget of more than $90 million, she finished barely three points better than progressive Democratic US Senate nominee Marquita Bradshaw in neighboring Tennessee. Bradshaw got little help from national Democrats and spent just $1.6 million.
Can a “Hood to the Holler” Vision Win in 2022?
Even before the November 2020 election, Kentucky Democrats were speculating about what Booker might have been able to accomplish in a race against a Republican incumbent. Could his mass-mobilization vision for building new coalitions and bringing new voters to the polls have gained traction if he’d had a little more time? Could the “hood to the holler” strategy have succeeded? They didn’t get an answer in 2020. But they could get an answer in 2022.
Booker announced this week that he has formed an exploratory committee to prepare a run against Paul. And that announcement was inspired. “They called us a long shot, said the movement in Kentucky was impossible. But, man, we proved them wrong,” Booker declared in a remarkable video released on Monday. “As we made our stand together, I could not have imagined the new world we were about to step into at the height of racial tension, the pandemic, and insurrection.”
Despite the failures of “a handful of privileged politicians” such as McConnell and Paul to meet the challenges of the moment, Booker says, grassroots Kentuckians have begun to make choices that “have already changed Kentucky forever.”
A 2022 bid, the prospective candidate suggests, will shake the foundations of Kentucky politics.
“Those folks building walls between us, they’re scared now,” says Booker. “They saw how close we came to shifting the scales. Our forward motion knocking them on their heels. They’ll stop at nothing to drag us backwards. They’ll lie. They’ll cheat. Just to keep us from the polls. So our next move is one we must make together. It’s a choice. A choice to adopt a Green New Deal for Kentucky and ensure a healthy planet for generations to come; a choice to guarantee quality healthcare for every man, women, and child. A choice to ensure every person in Kentucky has more money in their pocket. A choice to move mountains and build a society where we all go to bed nourished. Where we can all rest easy without worrying about our front door being busted down. Where we come together, united, from the hood to the holler, Black, white, brown, and to live in a commonwealth where everyone can thrive and reach for their God-given potential.”
Rand Paul should be scared. If Democrats in Kentucky and Washington embrace Booker’s “hood to the holler” vision and provide it with the support that was refused them in 2020, he can make Kentucky a 2022 battleground—and a testing ground for the next politics of a state and a nation. “We will transform Kentucky,” promises Booker. “And Rand Paul, you know it, too.”