Booker Emerges As Powerful Contender Ahead Of Kentucky’s U.S. Senate Primary

June 22, 2020 by Gaspard Le Dem
U.S. Senate candidate Charles Booker shakes hands with protestors in Louisville, KY. Booker is running against Amy Grath for the senate democratic nomination. (Alton Strupp/Louisville Courier Journal via AP)

WASHINGTON — New polling released on Thursday shows Charles Booker outpacing Amy McGrath in Kentucky’s Democratic primary for U.S Senate just days ahead of Election Day on June 23.

In a survey published Thursday by Democratic pollster Civiqs, 44% of respondents said they’d pick Booker, while McGrath trailed eight points behind at just 36%.

Booker, a 35-year old African American serving his first term in Kentucky’s House of Representatives, has emerged as a strong progressive candidate in a crowded field of Democrats hoping to unseat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

His campaign has won the endorsement of Kentucky’s two largest newspapers, along with the backing of powerful national progressive like Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez.

Booker’s surge in the polls coincides with weeks of nationwide demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice, including tense protests in Louisville over the killing of Breonna Taylor, an unarmed Black woman who was fatally shot in her apartment by Louisville police.

“It’s all been Booker, Booker, Booker for the last two weeks ever since the Black Lives Matter protests took off,” says Steve Voss, a professor of political science at the University of Kentucky.

Voss says polling data is too thin to say who’ll win on Tuesday, though Booker has a “plausible chance” of pulling off an upset.

From Political Outsider To Establishment Candidate

Until recently, McGrath was considered the leading Democratic contender in the race. The former Marine pilot became a darling of the national party in 2018 by nearly flipping a seat in Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District, a Republican bastion.

As of early June, McGrath had raked in a whopping $41 million in campaign contributions while Booker was still short of $800,000, according to Federal Election Commission filings. The eye-popping amounts have allowed her to flood Kentucky’s airwaves with dozens of television ads and radio spots. 

But McGrath has been repeatedly dragged down by progressive activists who accuse her of being an establishment candidate running on an overly moderate platform.

“Her image has been completely flipped from outsider who was receiving support from the National Party only grudgingly to, now she’s seen as this sort of insider who represents everything that’s been wrong with the Democratic Party for years,” says Voss.

Booker has hit McGrath for not showing up to demonstrations against police brutality in Louisville. An ad for Booker that aired last week highlighted an awkward interview moment during which McGrath admitted she hasn’t participated in protests due to family engagements. 

Meanwhile, McGrath has taken to personal barbs on Twitter, attacking Booker for allegedly not providing health insurance to his campaign staff while running on a “Medicare For All” platform.

The rhetoric between the candidates has been “vicious”, Voss says, but the fierce competition won’t hurt whoever advances to the general. “For the most part, I think that what’s going on now between Booker and McGrath is, is good for the Democratic Party,” he says.

Moreover, given the race’s high stakes for Democrats, the nominee won’t have to worry about spending too much in the primaries. “No matter who gets the nomination will be running against Mitch McConnell and money will flood in from all over the country,” he says.

Poll Closures Could Hurt Booker

Kentucky’s primaries were initially scheduled to happen in May, but the secretary of state postponed the election by a month in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, state officials have eased some restrictions on absentee voting to avoid crowding at polling places. 

Gov. Andy Beshear issued an executive order in April allowing all registered voters to cast their ballots by mail, though they will first need to request an absentee ballot. The order scrapped the need for a notarized signature to request an absentee ballot, stating that all Kentuckians “should utilize absentee voting by mail […] if they are able to do so.”

Voss says it’s unlikely the state will experience an election fiasco as seen in Georgia earlier this month because the state still relies on paper ballots, which tend to be more reliable than electronic polling stations. 

Still, the closure of dozens of polling centers will “absolutely” lead to disenfranchisement for some voters, he said. Dozens of counties will have just a single polling place open for in-person voting on Tuesday, a decision that Voss says could dissuade many people, particularly people who rely on public transportation, from showing up. 

That could end up hurting progressives like Booker who are relying on votes from Black and Hispanic voters in cities where getting to polling places could be an issue. “Urban minority voters get engaged later, they’re less likely to use absentee ballots and they’re more likely to want to vote on Election Day proper in person,” he says. “If you live in Louisville, you might have to travel five miles seven miles 10 miles to get to the voting place through an urban transportation network,” he adds.

Advocates have also condemned state legislators for passing a law that will require voters in November to present photo identification at in-person polling places, and to include a copy of a photo ID with their absentee ballot requests. 

In May, the League of Women Voters of Kentucky filed a lawsuit against Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams, alleging that the new law will suppress voters, and put their health at risk by requiring that they visit ID-issuing offices during the pandemic.

“[T]he Photo ID Law unreasonably burdens the fundamental right to vote of Kentuckians who are practicing recommended social distancing to protect the health and safety of themselves and their communities,” says the complaint.

In response to the lawsuit, Adams issued a statement that pinned the complaint on “far-left” activists who are “too extreme to win elections” and want to rewrite election laws. “If these self-described advocates for democracy actually believed in democracy, they would let the democratic process work and let elected officials make policy,” he said.

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