Almost exactly one year after his bid for U.S. Senate came up just short in the Democratic primary, Charles Booker of Louisville formally launched his new candidacy for the office Thursday, this time hoping to unseat incumbent Republican Sen. Rand Paul in 2022.
Booker kicked off his candidacy at a noon rally before a few hundred energetic supporters in the majority-Black West End of Louisville, just a block away from the district he represented for one term in the Kentucky House of Representatives.
“We’re ready to prove the doubters wrong and make history,” Booker said to applause at the end of his 35-minute speech. “We’re going to win this race, and we’re going to transform Kentucky, and it starts right now.”
Booker formed an exploratory committee for a potential run in April, saying he would travel the state and listen to Kentuckians to gauge if there was enough support for him to win a race against Paul, who says he will run for a third term.
In a Wednesday interview with The Courier Journal, Booker said his campaign will build on the themes and issues of his 2020 run and the Hood to the Holler nonprofit advocacy group he formed in its wake.
“What we started, the story I tell in my previous run, was the story that the people of Kentucky knew we needed to finish telling,” Booker said. “And it’s one that says we’re ready to come together across race, class, geography, that we’re ready to fight for structural change and we’re ready to heal, and we’re ready to do more than just struggle.”
A massive underdog last year in the Democrat primary against Amy McGrath — who greatly outspent him and had the backing of the national party establishment — support for Booker’s unapologetically progressive campaign surged in the final month, though he fell just 3 percentage points shy of the upset.
Despite also outspending Sen. Mitch McConnell in the general election, McGrath went on to be blown out by the Republican Senate leader in the November election — a common outcome for Democratic statewide candidates over the past decade, as Kentucky continues its rightward political shift.
Though some Kentucky Democrats believe a centrist candidate is the only kind that can win a statewide race in the current political climate, Booker says his unique brand of politics will create an unconventional path to victory.
“I know for a fact that we will blow out Rand Paul,” Booker said.
As he vowed in his last campaign to interact and listen to Kentuckians “from the hood to the holler,” Booker says he’ll take no area for granted and break through conventional partisan politics to reach voters who typically tune out his party.
“Rationing your insulin, like I’ve had to do, that’s not partisan. Putting food on the table, being safe in your home, these issues aren’t partisan,” Booker said. “And if we can tell that truth and show that we’re actually fighting the same battles, so we should fight together, it’s an opportunity to transcend party, to really build this coalition based on those kind of bonds.”
While national party establishment like the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee put its finger on the scale for McGrath in last year’s primary, Booker said through conversations he’s had, it is his expectation that “national leadership will respect and understand that it’s our time to lead the way.”
“It’s been made clear that they recognize my leadership, they understand that I’ve built the infrastructure,” Booker said. “We’re building this for the people of Kentucky, and anyone that is willing to get behind us — and certainly get out of our way — we’re appreciative of that.”
There has been very little chatter about other prominent Democratic names entering the Senate race, though political neophyte Ruth Gao announced Wednesday she is entering the race.
Booker said he hopes to build up support from Democratic officials across the state over the course of his campaign, with more than a dozen city and state office holders in attendance at the Thursday rally.
Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear said Thursday he has not made any endorsements in primary elections as governor, and it is still “really early,” but said he believes Booker “is a very strong candidate.”
“I believe he is very passionate,” Beshear said. “He has put a very good, very professional team around him.”
While some of the same campaign staff will return, Booker says its leadership team will feature two women instrumental in flipping Georgia from red to blue in 2020 — Dasheika Ruffin, a senior adviser for Sen. Raphael Warnock’s successful campaign, and campaign manager Bianca Keaton, who was chairwoman of the Gwinnett County Democratic Party in Georgia.
What are Senate analysts saying about Booker’s chances?
Jessica Taylor, the Senate analyst for the non-partisan Cook Political Report newsletter, told The Courier Journal Booker’s entry into the race would not affect their outlook on the 2020 race, which they view as solidly Republican.
Though Booker built up his profile in the 2020 race and his campaign will likely be very successful at fundraising, Taylor believes even a large amount of money “is futile to a point when you have a state like Kentucky that on the federal level is just incredibly red.”
Taylor noted McGrath spent $90 million in her campaign and still lost to McConnell by 20 percentage points, and while Beshear was able to win a statewide race in 2019, federal races in Kentucky are a much more difficult challenge for any Democrat.
“Booker is even a more progressive, to-the-left candidate than McGrath was, and it’s just hard to see how that can be a winning strategy in a state like Kentucky,” Taylor said.
Kyle Kondik, a Senate analyst for the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, also said Booker’s candidacy would not change the group’s designation of the race as being safely Republican.
Although Booker believes a more progressive candidate such as himself would have had a better chance than McGrath in 2020, Kondik countered that Booker “wouldn’t have won that race or even come close,” considering the partisan trends across the country and within Kentucky.
“Booker did have a theory of the election and the electorate that was definitely different than McGrath’s, so he’s going to get a chance to sort of try to prove that theory,” Kondik said. “I think he’s a … credible candidate who obviously is going to get a lot of national attention, but we still see it as the safe Republican race until we get compelling evidence otherwise.”
The Paul campaign, National Republican Senate Committee and Republican Party of Kentucky have issued near identical statements since Booker formed his exploratory committee in April, saying he is out of step with Kentuckians’ values, wanting to defund the police and take away their gun rights, with the NRSC calling him “a proud socialist.”
Paul’s campaign has also touted the endorsement of former President Donald Trump — who won Kentucky by blowout margins in 2016 and 2020 — saying the senator had a “proven record of fighting the liberal Washington agenda.”
Following Booker’s announcement, Paul issued a statement saying: “I just don’t think defunding the police and forcing taxpayers to pay for reparations will be very popular in Kentucky.”
Paul made a couple stops in Louisville Thursday — first at Midwest Church of Christ for a prayer breakfast and later a luncheon for the Rotary Club of Louisville, where he and local activist Christopher 2X spoke about longstanding problems with violence and how that impacts children.
When The Courier Journal asked what he thinks of Booker’s platform on issues like making prescriptions more affordable, Paul said the only thing he’s heard so far is that Booker is for defunding the police.
In a kickoff rally speech that was full of criticism for Paul, Booker said his GOP attackers play up fear and call him radical “because they don’t want you to know that they are not investing in our communities… They want you to think that the government working for you is a bad thing.”
“You know why Rand Paul is talking about reparations so much?” Booker asked. “Because he doesn’t want you to know that your government has not been making sure you have justice, that your government has not been accountable to you.”
Booker expressed confidence that he would not just shock many political observers by beating Paul, but “build infrastructure to transform our future at the local, state, federal level across the board.”
Booker said he is almost finished writing his memoir that will be published early next year, and is expecting the birth of his third daughter, Justyce, “in a couple of weeks.”