Protests Propel Charles Booker in Close Kentucky Senate Race Against Establishment-Backed Amy McGrath

Booker’s grassroots campaign against McGrath surged in the last few weeks. The final results, including absentee ballots, won’t be known until June 30.

U.S. Senate candidate Charles Booker speaks at a campaign stop at Pikeville City Park in Pikeville, Ky., Monday, June 22, 2020. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)
U.S. Senate candidate Charles Booker speaks at a campaign stop at Pikeville City Park in Pikeville, Ky., on June 22, 2020. Photo: Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader/AP

In the early-morning hours of March 13, police officers smashed their way into Breonna Taylor’s apartment in Louisville, Kentucky, while she slept. They had what is known as a “no-knock warrant.” It’s a controversial tool that allows police to burst through doors unannounced, and when they did so that night, Taylor’s boyfriend, hearing the armed men barreling into the apartment, shot one intruder in the leg. Police responded by shooting Taylor, an EMT, at least eight times, killing her. They were looking for drugs but found nothing. 

Two months later, George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police, and protests exploded first around the country and then around the globe. The protest movement, in its spare time, shook up political campaigns nationwide. In Kentucky, state legislator Charles Booker surged into a too-close-to-call U.S. Senate race against the candidate long ago anointed by Washington Democrats.  Outrage at Taylor’s killing mingled with the rage at Floyd’s murder across Kentucky, and Booker’s unwavering alliance with the protesters — and their demands for holding the officers responsible accountable — became a focus of his campaign. 

Booker, who talks proudly of coming from Kentucky’s poorest ZIP code, a neighborhood in West Louisville, connected his campaign to Taylor’s murder from the stage at his election night rally on Tuesday. Booker’s cousin, T.J. Booker Jr., had previously been the victim of police violence, and Charles Booker said that Taylor and his cousin had known each other.

“A lot of y’all have been yelling out Breonna’s name,” Booker said from the stage. “She hung out with my cousin T.J., and when he was murdered, she was there. And her death, her killing, felt like losing him all over again. And we stood up in the streets because we had no other choice.”

Kentucky voters weren’t meant to have a choice. Not long after Amy McGrath pulled off an upset victory in her House Democratic primary in May 2018, her phone rang. It was Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic minority leader, with more than just congratulations. No matter how the general election goes, Schumer told McGrath, we want you to be our candidate for Senate against Mitch McConnell in 2020, according to a McGrath 2018 campaign aide. 

The general election went poorly, with McGrath losing to Republican Andy Barr 51 to 48 percent in a race Democrats had been hoping to claim. Barr’s main line of attack had been to broadcast McGrath’s own words, recorded at a high-dollar fundraiser for Boston donors: “I am further left, I am more progressive, than anyone in the state of Kentucky,” she said. That may or may not have been true, but it wasn’t how she ran for office. Instead, she had presented herself to the public as a centrist politician looking to work with Republicans to advance common aims. In 2019, when she launched her Senate campaign with the support of Schumer and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, she continued to push herself as a moderate. Out of the gate, she said that she’d have supported the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and that her objective in the Senate would be to help President Donald Trump enact the better parts of his agenda. Under pressure, she flipped and said she’d have actually opposed Kavanaugh. 

The Democratic Party in Washington stuck by her, but in Kentucky, she was seen as anything but invincible. Sportscaster Matt Jones, the basketball-obsessed state’s most popular talk radio host, formed an exploratory committee, arguing that McGrath and Schumer weren’t playing to win. Schumer’s goal, Jones said, was to get behind a nominee who wouldn’t win, but whose profile would help raise endless money against McConnell, forcing the majority leader to focus time, money, and energy in Kentucky that would otherwise go elsewhere. True to form, McGrath has spent upward of $20 million on her campaign to date.

McConnell’s operatives, Jones later said, had begun approaching people close to his friends, asking if they had dirt not just on Jones, but also on those close to him. Meanwhile, McGrath’s campaign put pressure on Jones’s bosses to get him off the air, and he was fired from his TV show.  

Jones bowed out. Putting himself through it was one thing, he argued, but putting those close to him through it was another. That left Booker and Mike Broihier. Broihier came from outside of politics, with the argument that he was a type of candidate McConnell had never faced before: a retired Marine, a teacher, and a farmer. He won the endorsement of Andrew Yang and a slew of Indivisible groups around the state, but, particularly in the last month of the campaign, it was Booker who took off. 

While Booker joined protesters in the street, McGrath stayed away, leading to an awkward debate moment in which she first claimed she’d stayed home to be with family, then said she was concerned about the coronavirus.

Jones, in a move that shook up the race, endorsed Booker, who began lining up state and local endorsements in rapid succession, including Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. At the local level, establishment figures began gravitating toward him, including Alison Lundergan Grimes, who’d been the Democrats’ 2014 Senate nominee. 

Kentucky had previously planned to hold its primary on May 19, but postponed it due to the pandemic and significantly expanded mail-in voting. Because absentee ballots have been available for several weeks, the McGrath camp has been hoping that Booker’s surge came too late. 

“We’ve already won,” Booker told supporters Tuesday night, celebrating the multiracial, working-class coalition his campaign built. Whether he actually wins won’t be known until June 30, when the state’s biggest counties, Jefferson and Fayette, have said that they will release vote totals, combining both in-person and mail ballots, rather than dropping them piecemeal as other counties have done. As the night ended, McGrath held a slight lead of several thousand votes, but Jefferson and Fayette counties — constituting Louisville and Lexington, respectively — are expected to go heavily for Booker.

The final weeks had seen Booker tour rural Kentucky and draw big crowds in mostly white areas, where he’d engage them in a favorite chant. “From the hood,” Booker would say, leaving it to the crowd to finish: “To the holler.” 

It wasn’t just Black people, look around this crowd,” Booker said Tuesday night. “We’re in this together. You hurt one of us, you hurt all of us.”

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