U.S. Senate hopeful Charles Booker banks on progressive platform to beat Rand Paul
A bus plastered with a giant image of Charles Booker’s face pulled up to a church parking lot on the west side of Louisville on a chilly October afternoon. A few supporters gathered to see him off on his final 21-day campaign blitz.
Booker stood next to his mother and delivered an impassioned speech on the mission of his campaign.
“Where I’m from, we get ignored. In political leadership, we’re not seen, we’re invisible. We’re told to sit down, we’re told to shut up, we’re not counted, we’re not invested in, our communities are left behind. and we’re done with that,” he said.
Booker wasn’t just talking about the Black community. His tagline “Hood to the Holler” proposes that urban areas like Booker’s native Louisville and rural areas around the state have a lot in common.
His plan to bridge the divide between urban and rural communities has focused on solutions to deal with racial justice, the realities of generational poverty and voting rights.
But his attempt to topple two-term Republican Sen. Rand Paul has been an uphill battle. With the exception of Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, Republicans have dominated statewide elections in Kentucky in recent years. And Paul has stayed extremely visible since his last run in 2018 – running a failed campaign for president in 2016, making regular appearances on FOX News and becoming one of the foremost critics of the prevailing science of the coronavirus pandemic.
Not the typical Democrat
Booker’s run marks a shift in the kind of candidates the Democratic Party and Kentucky’s voters normally choose. Most notably, he is the first Black person nominated for U.S. Senate in Kentucky history.
Greg Stumbo, the former attorney general and Democratic speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives, said Booker is a “different” kind of Democrat running for office in Kentucky.
“He is a trailblazer. He’s the first person we’ve really had that stepped up to the plate and ran a campaign based upon what a lot of people would call progressive ideas,” Stumbo said.
Stumbo said he doesn’t agree with every stance Booker has taken on issues like abortion and gun reform. The former speaker comes from an era when Democrats dominated state politics, and were more conservative on select issues.
“But what stands out for me is that not everyone has to agree with him, and Booker is okay with that. He’s willing to meet you where you are,” Stumbo said.
Former Louisville Urban League President Sadiqa Reynolds said she’s glad to have a candidate like Booker pushing for progressive ideas statewide.
“At a time when people desperately need hope, and inspiration, I think Charles is inspiring. He just hasn’t had the ability to get the message out as much as we would want,” she said.
But Booker hasn’t gotten the widespread financial support needed to get the word out about his campaign. He says his campaign has been driven by small dollar donations averaging $25 to $50. His $5.8 million raised so far pales in comparison to Paul’s war chest — $26 million.
Reynolds said not having major backing from the national Democratic Party’s big donors has cost Booker. She says the party’s strategy in Georgia with gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams could have been replicated here to get Booker in the spotlight more.
“Imagine if Booker had the radio and television presence that Stacey Abrams could afford. That’s what I think the Democratic Party has taken for granted a little bit, he could have been useful to help drive voter turnout,” she said.
Tapping younger generations
Booker was a state representative for one term, but he gained prominence in 2020 during the racial justice protests. He narrowly lost the primary election that year to retired Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath.
But he says his first run helped him build a network of organizers and volunteers across the state.
“The biggest lesson I’ve learnt is really about building community. We’ve built coalitions of young leaders on all of the college campuses and high schools across Kentucky,” Booker said.
He hopes there’s more people like 23-year-old Stacie Fugate, an organizer at Appalachians for Appalachia in Hazard. Fugate said Booker has been a constant presence in eastern Kentucky, even before the catastrophic flooding in late July this year.
“A lot of politicians don’t really come to the holler unless it is election season. But Charles Booker was here,” she said.
Fugate said there’s plenty of support in eastern Kentucky for Booker stemming from his “Hood to the Holler” campaign. But she acknowledges many people in her region are hesitant about his environmental and energy policies, especially when it comes to transitioning away from coal.
“When you’re talking about the transition from coal to renewable energy, younger people like me, we eat that up. We are going to live to see the effects of climate change and we have higher stakes here,” she said.
Fugate said coal is a thorny issue, and it’s hard to have a nuanced conversation about it.
“I just wish that Booker may have held some town halls, really reassure them and say ‘Hey, I’m not wanting to take away from the population here, I’m not wanting to take away jobs. I just want to make it a better place for future generations by addressing climate change,” she said.
Making himself known
Dealing with the political legacy of coal is just part of Booker’s uphill battle in this year’s election. Paul denied the invitation to debate Booker and barely acknowledged him as an opponent for much of the campaign.
In recent weeks, Paul released three TV ads focused on the “defund the police” movement, and said Booker was “advocating for violence.”
During his television appearance, Booker said he didn’t want to cut police funding and supported other community safety programs.
“That means we work with law enforcement, we work with faith leaders, we work with philanthropy, we work with business, we work with folks on the ground to address the social determinants of health, and actually invest in dealing with the root causes of crime,” he said.
The state is also increasingly Republican. This year, GOP voter registration in the state surpassed Democrats for the first time in state history.
Before he got back on the bus in Louisville, Booker posed for selfies and hugged supporters.
“This isn’t just about winning an election. It isn’t about winning a senate race. It’s about winning our future here in Kentucky,” he said.
Former House Speaker Stumbo said Booker’s run could have an impact that goes beyond a race or election.
“It’s a radical road, it’s a new path. Will he succeed on it? Probably not. But the success is seeing if we can attract new voters with sort of a progressive message, and he’s already won that,” he said.
Democrats in Kentucky have a long way to go. The state hasn’t sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1992.