Analysis: Do Kentucky Democrats Want A Truly Left-Wing Senate Candidate?

Dec 12, 2019

Kentucky state Rep. Charles Booker (left) and Amy McGrath
Credit Booker and McGrath campaigns

The tensions between the more center-left wing of the Democratic Party (think Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi) and the party’s left-wing (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders) are fairly high right now, with the Democratic primary in full swing. And this fight will play out in Kentucky over the next month — and perhaps through May.

State Representative Charles Booker, who recently set up an exploratory committee for a possible 2020 Senate run, is spending this month traveling across the state, trying to decide if he should formally enter the race. The Sunrise Movement, a national group pushing for a climate change plan called the Green New Deal, announced its support of Booker last week and more liberal lawmakers in the statehouse like Nima Kulkarni are also encouraging his run. If he runs, Booker in particular would set up a clear contrast with Amy McGrath, a more center-left Democratic candidate for the seat currently held by Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell.

Booker has been fairly explicit that he is “exploring,” suggesting he might opt out of the Senate contest and instead run for a second-term in the statehouse if he doesn’t see a real path to winning at least the Democratic primary. So if Booker decides not to run, I think that’s a sign that he has determined that Kentucky Democrats are not that excited about a more liberal alternative to McGrath. And while Booker is making the formal decision to run or not, Kentucky Democrats have some power here too. Do they really want a lefty candidate or are they generally fine with the more center-left McGrath?

The filing deadline is Jan 10, ahead of the May 19 Democratic primary. So Booker will need to decide soon.

The Competing Visions Of The Democratic Candidates

There are other candidates already running in the primary along with McGrath, including retired Marine Mike Broihier and pharmacy technician Steven Cox. McGrath is of course the favorite. She has raised nearly $11 million since she started her campaign over the summer and is the preferred candidate of congressional Democrats.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Booker supports the Green New Deal, Medicare for All and the impeachment and removal of President Donald Trump. Broihier also supports the Green New Deal, while Cox favors Medicare for All and making public colleges tuition-free. McGrath does not currently support any of those positions. In taking these stances, Booker in particular is clearly intending to ally himself with the Ocasio-Cortez/Sanders wing of the party and in avoiding them, McGrath is positioning herself more closely with people like Biden.

We should be clear about why these policy differences matter. Even if Democrats in Washington gained control of the House, Senate and presidency in 2021, it’s not clear that far-reaching plans like the Green New Deal or Medicare for All would be passed. What these candidates are really signaling are their broader values and ideologies. If Booker, Brohier or Cox were the senator, I would expect him to align with members like Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders, who are:

  1. Decidedly liberal on issues around race and identity (so they might try to limit severely limit funding for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, for example);
  2. Very wary of corporate interests (so they would be unlikely to join a GOP-led bill softening some regulations on banks, as many moderate Democrats did last year);
  3. More supportive of Democrats pushing for controversial legislation that creates very strong partisan division (like Medicare for All).

McGrath, in contrast, might be more interested in cutting deals with Republicans and being a more centrist voice within the chamber.

I don’t want to overstate the differences here. McGrath is clearly a Democrat and liberal-leaning. She would probably vote like the other candidates on most issues.

Who Is Most Electable?

Which candidate would be better positioned to defeat McConnell? I’m not sure. McGrath has a lot of money right now, but I think whichever candidate is the Democratic nominee to take on McConnell will raise a lot, both within and outside of Kentucky. What’s more clear is that they would take different approaches in taking on the longtime senator. McGrath is suggesting that McConnell is a barrier to Trump “draining the swamp” in Washington.

“For voters, when they cast a vote for Donald Trump, he said a lot of big things,” McGrath told Politico in a recent interview. “He said, ‘We’re going to do big things on infrastructure.’ He said, ‘I’m going to take it to the pharmaceutical industries and I’m going to bring down drug prices.’ He said he was going to fix healthcare. He said all of these things, and for a lot of those things, they haven’t gotten done actually because of Mitch McConnell.”

I’m not sure that statement is really in line with the facts: McConnell has been quite instrumental in pushing through Trump’s agenda and it’s not clear Trump is really pushing for any of those policies McGrath is citing. That said, McGrath’s approach is clear — she wants to win over some people who voted for Trump both by downplaying her liberalism on policy issues but also casting McConnell as a singular villain in Washington distinct from the broader Republican Party and Trump. Her campaign is some ways an echo of Andy Beshear’s this year — he tried hard to make sure his race against Matt Bevin wasn’t just viewed as Democrat v. Republican on ideological terms but instead a referendum on Bevin’s behavior.

Booker and Broihier are hinting at more populist campaigns, hoping to appeal to both Trump voters and perhaps people who have not been voting at all by attacking the rich and the powerful. Booker is likely to make the case that the problems of poverty in his statehouse district in west Louisville aren’t that different from people in Eastern Kentucky.

“We can do big things,” Booker said in a recent interview on “My Old Kentucky Podcast.” In that interview, he emphasized that he hoped his campaign would be a “movement’ to take on issues like “corporate greed, ”generational poverty” and “structural racism.”

Both of these approaches have obvious shortcomings. McGrath’s doesn’t sound that different than other Kentucky Democrats, who generally lose key statewide races to Republicans. The populist strategy is more untested — but it’s not immediately obvious that Kentuckians who have voted for Trump will respond well to proposals like the Green New Deal that the president has cast as akin to socialism.

How Do The Candidates Stack Up In Terms Of The Primary?

McGrath is the favorite, largely because of her fundraising. Among the more liberal alternatives to her, Booker seems to have the most buzz. He is also the only sitting elected official in the field.

How would he (or other more liberal candidate) stack against McGrath?

It’s worth thinking about the Democratic vote both Kentucky and nationally in four ways:

  1. Race (in primaries, black voters often back either black candidates or more left-center white ones, like Biden in the presidential primary);
  2. Age (younger voters often back more liberal Democrats, older ones like more center-left ones);
  3. Education (college-educated voters often like more liberal candidates);
  4. Ideology (there seems to be an ideologically-left wing of the party and then voters who I think are best described as kind of non-ideological, although they might describe themselves as moderate).

For Kentucky, I think a fifth factor is relevant: geography, with:

  1. Frankfort/Lexington/Louisville/Lexington/
  2. Western Kentucky
  3. Eastern Kentucky in particular being distinct regions.

Research from data analysts Robert Griffin, William H. Frey, and Ruy Teixeira suggests that the plurality of Kentucky Democrats are white people without college degrees, with whites with degrees and black people being sizable blocs as well.

If I were Booker, I would be looking to see if I was rallying in particular

  1. White people under 45
  2. White people with college degrees
  3. White people who think of themselves as liberals
  4. Black voters of all ages, ideologies and education levels and
  5. People in Frankfort, Louisville and Lexington.

And then I would be looking for signs that I could gain support in Eastern Kentucky, where I think Democrats might be open to a populist message. If I were McGrath, I would be looking to solidify my support among Democrats who are moderate or not particularly ideological and those over 50 — while at the same time signaling I was liberal enough to younger and more progressive people.

In the 2016 Kentucky Democratic primary for president, Hillary Clinton won 46.8 percent of the vote, compared to 46.3 for Bernie Sanders. So plenty of Kentucky Democrats have recently backed a more center-left candidate (Clinton) and others have backed a more populist one (Sanders).

So my bottom line: I’m not sure if McGrath will end up running without any real opposition in the Democratic primary or if Booker, Broihier or one of the other candidates ends up being a real challenger to her. So stay tuned — this could be an interesting primary race.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a national political writer based in Louisville. You can reach him via Twitter or e-mail.