How A Charles Booker Senate Campaign Could Reshape Kentucky's Democratic Party
Charles Booker is well-positioned to launch a campaign sometime early next year to try to defeat incumbent Kentucky U.S. Senator Rand Paul in 2022. His Senate candidacy this year created a local network of Booker super-fans and enough national support for him to be able to raise money from outside of the state too. The notion that he is black and progressive and therefore Kentucky Democrats should bypass him to nominate a white centrist who is “electable” is probably out the window now. How much worse can Booker do than Amy McGrath, who is white and centrist and spent more than $90 million to get nowhere close to defeating Mitch McConnell? And Booker, because he just ran for the Senate, is perhaps the most logical person to take on Paul. He might be able to clear the field and have basically no real primary challenger. In contrast, if Booker ran for mayor or for the Louisville-area U.S. House seat (if Rep. John Yarmuth opts to retire and there is no indication that he will), there would probably be a lot of other Democrats running in the primary.
Booker, in recent interviews, is pointedly not ruling out another Senate run. “I’m certainly not done causing good trouble,” Booker said in an October Zoom meeting with the College Democrats at Northwestern University. “We have two terrible Senators in Kentucky. So I’m praying on what that means for me in 2022. Stay tuned.”
Of course the other reason why Booker would not have as much competition from fellow Democrats in a Senate campaign but would for mayor or the House is that one of those three (the Senate) might be a political suicide mission. It will be hard to win the Democratic primary for mayor or the House, but the Democratic primary winner has better than 50 percent odds of then being elected mayor or the House representative, since Louisville is Democratic-leaning. In contrast, it would be a very uphill climb to win a Senate race in a state where Democrats just lost at the presidential level by 26 percentage points---particularly since Joe Biden will be in the White House and there is usually a general backlash against the party controlling the presidency in midterms.
So if Booker takes on Paul, the most likely outcome is that he wins the Democratic nomination, gets 35-45 percent of the vote in the general election and therefore has spent two years on a campaign that was always a long shot. And a person with two failed Senate candidacies on their resume might have a limited political future.
The other obvious (but fairly unlikely) outcome is that Booker wins the Senate election. I would not totally rule that out. Why not? First, if you look at the recent races for state legislature, statewide roles in Kentucky like governor and then elections for federal offices like U.S. Senate and president, it looks like Democrats did a bit better in 2018 than 2019 and better in 2018 and 2019 compared to 2020. I suspect some voters in Kentucky (and in other states) are particularly enthusiastic about President Trump (as opposed to the Republican Party more broadly), so he may have driven turnout up in some conservative-leaning areas in Kentucky in 2020 compared to 2018 and 2019. With Trump not on the ballot, some of those conservative-leaning voters may have stayed home in 2018 and 2019 and might do so again in 2022.
Second, but somewhat related, Democrats will do better in a state like Kentucky if politics is not so nationalized, with every discussion at a local level tied to Trump or AOC or another figure outside of Kentucky. I think politics will be plenty nationalized in November 2022, but perhaps a bit less so than this year. Third, it is not clear that Paul is as skilled a politician as McConnell. Finally, perhaps Booker ends up really connecting with Kentucky voters and getting a lot of conservative-leaning people to back him. This is unlikely, but we truly don’t know the future.
A Stacey for Kentucky
But there is a third possible outcome: that Booker loses, but becomes Kentucky’s version of Stacey Abrams, defining a strategy and approach that takes hold among Kentucky Democrats and extends beyond his Senate candidacy, whatever its results are.
Let me unpack this idea. As the South has become more Republican over the last several decades, Democrats have generally taken two approaches to limit their losses: moving to the right on policy and nominating white candidates, usually men, for key statewide races. I would not say that this strategy is/was wrong, even if it hasn’t stopped the Republicans from becoming dominant in the South. I tend to think the South was going Republican no matter what the Democrats did. And sometimes this strategy does work. For example, either Steve or Andy Beshear (i.e. a centrist white male Democrat) has won three of the last four gubernatorial elections in Kentucky.
But there are shortcomings to this strategy. It means that Democrats in the South often bash liberal ideas in somewhat disingenuous ways to establish their centrist/moderate/conservative credentials. For example, then-Gov. Steve Beshear sharply attacked then-President Obama’s environmental policies in a way I doubt his son would echo today. Secondly, this approach often results in Democrats steering away from candidates of color. In a recent interview with the American Prospect, North Carolina state senator Erica Smith, who is black, details how she did everything she could, including going to a bootcamp for candidates put on by the Congressional Black Caucus, so that she could be in the Democratic Party’s pipeline for higher offices. But Democratic Party leaders effectively blocked her path to running for the state’s U.S. Senate seat in 2020 in favor of a white male candidate named Cal Cunningham. Cunningham of course then lost the Senate race, dogged in the final weeks of the campaign by his admission that he had been sexting with a woman who is not his wife.
Finally, these white male candidates in the South often hint to voters essentially, “I am not like the rest of the crazy liberals in the Democratic Party.” Voters may be internalizing that message --- and voting for these white male candidates for governor or U.S. Senate but not other Democratic candidates for the state legislature, Congress or the presidency. Frankfort is now dominated by the Republicans in the statehouse, even as the Beshears have been able to keep the governor’s mansion. A governor has fairly limited ability to shift policy if every other key institution in a state is controlled by the other party. In Kentucky, the problem with this candidate-centric approach is obvious- -- Steve Beshear doesn’t have more sons who are in politics and doesn’t seem likely to run for office again himself. “Find a Beshear” is not a viable long-term strategy for Democrats in Kentucky. Nor is finding another U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin a great strategy for Democrats in West Virginia or a carbon copy of Gov. Roy Cooper for Democrats in North Carolina.
In Georgia, Abrams spent the 2010’s kind of guiding the Democrats there away from the one-centrist-white-guy-will-save-us approach. Abrams argued that the Democratic Party in Georgia, instead of choosing white centrist candidates and running on centrism to appeal to moderate white voters, should try to maximize its support among the growing number of people of color and white urbanites in the Atlanta area, not tact right on policy and run candidates who could connect with people of color and white progressives in particular. She spent several years working on initiatives to increase turnout among people of color in Georgia. She then ran in 2017-18 as a gubernatorial candidate who is not a white man and didn’t move to the right on policy and did better than most Democratic candidates for statewide office in recent years.
The Biden campaign built on Abrams’s strategy, winning Georgia because Biden did so well in the areas around Atlanta. (Biden is a centrist white man but the coalition he won with in Georgia was heavily-urban and he had more black supporters than white supporters in the state.) Georgia’s two Democratic Senate candidates also did better than Democrats usually do in the state, pushing those elections into runoffs on Jan 5. Those two candidates are decidedly not Beshear types either. Jon Ossoff is 33 years old and Jewish, Raphael Warnock is a black pastor. Neither is moving to the right a lot.
I don’t think Georgia has gone permanently blue. Ossoff and Warnock might lose in the runoffs. There is nothing wrong with white centrist male candidates running for office and I am sure we will see a lot of Beshear types in the future, both in the South and throughout the country.
But what Abrams has built in Georgia is a strategy that doesn’t hinge on Georgia Democrats choosing only white male centrist candidates and/or finding one special candidate or family, like the Beshears in Kentucky. You could imagine a lot of future Democrats in Georgia following her general template --- Democratic blah on economic issues, lots of social justice rhetoric, a coalition centered around people of color and white progressives in the Atlanta area. That may not be 50 percent every election, but it will be close.
Booker couldn’t transport Abrams’ exact Georgia approach to Kentucky. People of color (Asian, black, Hispanic and from other racial groups) are 48 percent of Georgians, 33 percent of people in the state are black. In Kentucky, 16 percent of people are of color, 9 percent are black. This is harder to prove, but I suspect that 1. The Louisville metro area includes a smaller percentage of Kentucky residents compared to the percentage of Georgians who live in Atlanta and its suburbs 2. The white voters in the Louisville area are more Republican-leaning than those in the Atlanta area 3. Georgia Democrats are benefiting from left-leaning people moving to Atlanta for corporate jobs in a way that doesn’t happen as much in Louisville.
A winning Democratic coalition in Kentucky would have to be heavily-white and include a lot of people who live in rural areas and small towns. It couldn’t be Louisville-centric, because the rest of the state would be wary of that and the Louisville area doesn’t have the votes to win an election. It probably can’t be largely limited to cities and suburbs (like Biden’s national coalition) because Kentucky doesn’t have massive suburbs like the Atlanta or Philadelphia areas. It couldn’t be grounded in social justice or a racial awakening --- racial issues and black people aren’t at the center of everything in Kentucky like Georgia.
Booker seems to have figured this part out already. His slogan “Hood to the Holler” and general populist messaging is aimed at creating a kind of cross-region, working-class coalition that includes Louisville (“the Hood”) and Kentucky’s black voters but is not centered in Louisville or centered around black people. His way of speaking about politics, suggesting it’s really a divide between the haves and the have nots, those in the system versus those excluded from it, in theory could appeal to Kentuckians across regional, demographic, class and maybe even party lines. And you could imagine a bunch of Democrats across Kentucky, particularly people who like Booker who didn’t grow up with much wealth, running on these general themes for years to come.
Hood to the Holler has the potential to be a longstanding strategy for Kentucky Democrats in a way that “You Can Trust Me Because I Am A Beshear” obviously couldn’t. And Booker, at least right now, is hinting that he is interested in developing something that is long-term.
“This is a moment to not turn away from places like Kentucky, but to actually invest more on the ground. And not just in candidates, not just around election time, but in people, year-round. There is no substitute for that type of work …. Any campaign that doesn’t do that type of deep organizing, that doesn’t give voters a vision for the future, that doesn’t give people a reason to believe that anything can actually be different — no matter how much money you have, you’re not going to be successful,” he told Louisville native and Huffington Post reporter Travis Waldron recently.
He added, “People put a whole lot of money into races, not only in Kentucky, but in other places where Democrats weren’t successful. I think it should drum home the point you cannot buy your way out of the trauma and despair and hopelessness that has been there for generations. You’ve got to organize out of it. So as opposed to having a critique of McGrath, I think it really is an indictment of our whole model of political engagement. This should be crystal clear to everybody that we need to do things differently.”
In an interview with the journalist Anand Giridharadas that was published back in September, Booker spoke in similar terms.
“Communities in Eastern Kentucky that are 99 percent white are yelling Breonna Taylor's name because they can see themselves connected to it. That is a new opportunity for us to build a coalition that can solve some of these deep-rooted problems,” Booker said. “Hood to the Holler” was a rallying cry during my run for U.S. Senate. It was a powerful declaration of these communities that, in large measure, are separate and distinct. And although they do have a lot of differences, there are so many common bonds. These places are, in many respects, the forgotten places.”
“Healthcare is very obvious,” he added. “But when you dig into, for instance, the declining coal industry, we don't have coal jobs in the hood where I'm from, but we definitely have had industries leave, and we've been abandoned. In talking to that trauma and those real experiences, you're able to build connections across these divides.
Why This May Not Happen
There are two reasons why Booker may not be able to create some kind of broader political strategy for Kentucky Democrats. The first is that perhaps Booker really just wants to run for another office himself and isn’t interested in leading this kind of long-term party development. Alternatively, this longer term organizing is complicated --- maybe he does want to do it but will be ineffective.
There is one other big barrier to this approach: the current Democratic Party. Remember how historian Lara Putnam, in my recent interview with her, emphasized that having the right “message” doesn’t matter if that message never hits its intended audience in the way that you intended to. I am not sure Booker’s “Hood to the Holler” theme can ever really get to voters. Why not? Because the media/Democratic Party elite discourse right now basically defines all Democrats and every idea into two camps: the left/Sanders/Warren/AOC/The Squad vs. the center-left/ Obama/Biden/Pelosi/Democrats in swing districts. Everything in the Democratic Party is trapped in a binary. It’s basically, “Are you an AOC-Robin-DiAngelo-loving-super-progressive obsessed with purity tests who wants to build a wall on the border blocking anyone from entering the country who doesn’t understand intersectionality and critical race theory who is fine with Democrats only having 100 seats in the House as long as you can brag about how woke you are compared to your other friends with two master’s degrees? Or, “Are you a Biden-Pelosi-loving-Obama-worshipping-corporate-establishment hack who would vote for Mussolini as long as he had a “D” beside his name on the ballot who just wants BLM, Sunrise and all of these other groups to shut the hell up so you can go back to brunch guilt-free with all your white friends and your one Asian/Black/Latino token?”
This binary of course is overly simplistic. The very-left-leaning Sanders and Elizabeth Warren put aside their disagreements with Biden on issues and worked hard to help him win. Electability-minded candidates like Steve Bullock of Montana and Sherrod Brown of Ohio try fairly hard to present the most left-wing version of their ideas possible that would still allow them to win elections. In a recent interview where he criticized activists’ use of the phrase “defund the police,” Obama also criticized the Biden campaign and the Democratic National Committee for giving AOC so little speaking time at the party’s convention.
But this binary still exists, even if it’s reductive. So one of Booker’s challenges won’t be Republicans casting his vision and ideas as outlandish/extreme/radical but more centrist Democrats doing it first. After all, while Booker is now trying to position himself outside of this binary now, he chose a side earlier this year: the more left-wing one. During his Senate campaign, he welcomed endorsements from Sanders, AOC and Warren. He ran on Medicare for all and the Green New Deal, code for “unrealistic and unelectable” in one part of the Democratic Party and “the only real way forward” in the other bloc.
And Booker isn’t exactly avoiding more left-wing stands. Here are some of his recent Twitter messages:
“We didn’t lose Breonna because of a slogan. Instead of conceding this narrative, let’s shape our own. It’s time we listen to the people, organize and build coalitions around our own message, and cast a vision that inspires us all to lead for change at the ballot box and beyond,” Booker wrote after Obama criticized the defund the police movement, with Booker taking the fairly bold step of criticizing a man who remains an icon for many Democrats, particularly black ones.
“Take a deep breath. Raise a glass even (It will be bourbon for me).Let’s recharge, and fight even harder for a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, UBI, Reparations, cannabis legalization, free college, true public safety, housing for all, and the humanity of all people.”
“There should be a federal executive department focused specifically on systemic/structural racism and reparations.”
“The truth of the matter is that our country has always been vigorously reluctant or outright unwilling to address the abuse, brutality, militarization, and institutional racism in policing. It’s not really about a “slogan”.
I suspect many of these ideas (reparations, Green New Deal, no billionaires) aren’t particularly popular in Kentucky right now. I tend to think that’s not too important ---a Democrat, particularly a black one, running in a key race in America will be cast as having these kinds of views anyway and unless you have a strong independent brand (Beshear, Biden), you’re probably not going to gain much ground by running a campaign saying that you are “not that kind of Democrat” (Cunningham, McGrath.) That said, Booker prominently taking these stands right now is signaling, “I will not be taking orders for how to run my Senate campaign from Chuck Schumer, the Beshears or the Kentucky Democratic Party,” all of whom don’t favor these kinds of political messages. Those people and entities of course have the power to push back at Booker, by privately or publicly signaling that he is not electable, recruiting another Democratic candidate (maybe even a black one or a left-but-not AOC-left person) to also run for the Senate or otherwise undermining him.
Booker’s messaging is implying that both parties are ignoring Kentuckians to some extent. He is criticizing the Democratic establishment too. The establishment may strike back --- and it’s coded way to do that is to declare a candidate unelectable, even if basically all Democrats are unelectable statewide in Kentucky.
This is what happened in West Virginia earlier this year. A community organizer and first-time candidate named Stephen Smith created a kind of informal party called West Virginia Can’t Wait. Smith was running for the Democratic nomination for governor in West Virginia, but dozens of other people ran for other offices like the state legislature allied with West Virginia Can’t Wait too Smith and West Virginia Can’t Wait’s platform could be defined as either very liberal (he supported ideas like a wealth tax) or anti-establishment (the candidates under this banner would not take money from corporate pacs.)
Smith’s message leaned hard into the idea that politics in West Virginia were broken and that both parties were at fault to some extent. But he got tagged as a lefty, and the leader of the West Virginia establishment Democrats, Sen. Manchin, endorsed a candidate more tied to the party establishment, who then won the gubernatorial primary.
West Virginia Can’t Wait candidates did win at least 11 races across the state, but it’s not clear the movement really captured the West Virginia Democratic Party.
To conclude, I don’t know if Charles Booker will run for the Senate, if he will use that platform to build a more grassroots movement in the state, and if that movement will take hold. I don’t even know if Abrams will ultimately be successful in Georgia or if Biden’s win there was a fluke. What I do know is that 1. The Democrats are struggling throughout the South, particularly in Kentucky 2. They are the party that includes most black people, so their path to victory is likely going to include black voters and possibly black candidates 3. Booker just came off a strong campaign and Abrams is now a Democratic Party icon. Right now, Hood to the Holler is just a slogan. But it seems like it could turn into more.