Kentucky primary election: How George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s deaths are impacting battle to oust Mitch McConnell

Progressive outsider Charles Booker has been endorsed by Bernie Sanders and AOC

Andrew Buncombe
Monday 22 June 2020 23:41 BST
Charles Booker runs for US senate: From the hood to the holler

The battle to take on Republican senator Mitch McConnell – a race long-considered a done deal – is coming down to the wire, as a progressive outsider seizes on the demands for racial justice sweeping the country.

Other than that of Donald Trump himself, for Democrats there are few scalps more highly prized than the one of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, 78, who is accused of stalling the legislative agenda of Barack Obama and defending the current president’s worst abuses.

For a long time, the frontrunner to the take on Mr McConnell in November as he seeks his seventh term as senator for Kentucky was Amy McGrath, 45, former Marine fighter pilot, who in 2018 narrowly lost a bid to win a seat in the House of Representatives. The national Democratic Party literally put its money behind her, and she has been able to raise an astonishing $41m.

But in recent weeks, as people across the country and around the world have protested for racial justice following the death in police custody of George Floyd, and where demonstrators in Kentucky marched in outcry over the shooting by officers of 26-year-old medic Breonna Taylor, things gave shifted.

Charles Booker, 35, a progressive state legislator who is African American, has seen his support surge, as he has travelled across the state, campaigning on a message of social and racial justice.

Having secured the endorsements of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Mr Booker has seen his own fund-raising boosted by more than $3m in the last few weeks. Previously, his total was $750,000.

Meanwhile, a poll conducted for the think tank Data for Progress, suggested Mr Booker was leading Ms McGrath, 44 per cent to 36 per cent.

“One day left. One day left to do what many thought was impossible. One day left to bring it home,” Mr Booker tweeted on Monday, a day before the primary.

“Kentucky, there is still time to vote. Let’s shock the world, shall we?”

There are many uncertainties hanging over the race, which was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic, and in which many people have taken the opportunity to vote early using the absentee ballot.

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Also because of the pandemic, the number of actual polling stations is being reduced, and in Louisville, where the largest concentration of African American voters lives, reports suggest there will be only one.

Dewey Clayton, Professor of political science at the University of Louisville, said he had watched as Mr Booker had criss-crossed the state, trying to connect with voters, and pushing a platform that includes Medicare for All, and the Green New Deal. He said this marked a break from the past, because Democrats had previously shifted to the centre to try and compete in what has traditionally been a solid conservative state.

‘“[Mr Booker’s] fundraising was not impressive at all up to that point. He really wasn’t a voice that many people have heard and knew of, although he had been travelling the state,” Mr Clayton told The Independent.

“When the racial protests began here in Louisville with the shooting death of Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd’s killing, he really sprang to life.”

He added: “There’s a saying in politics that timing is everything. And he really has seized the moment.”

Ms McGrath has not given up, and may believe the support she received from the Democratic Party power brokers, desperate to try and get rid of Mr McConnell, may see her still emerge as November’s candidate.

She issued her own statement about racial justice

“I believe that the promise of America is that everyone is treated with respect and dignity no matter what race, gender, ethnicity. I also acknowledge that our country has real problems with living up to that promise,” she said.

“The killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd have brought the country together to stand against police violence and systemic racism, and there is a long list of victims that have come before them.”

The race to take on Mr McConnell attracted up to a dozen hopefuls, but only three candidates – Mr Booker, Ms McGrath and Mike Broihier, a farmer and former Marine colonel are still running statewide races.

Both the campaigns of Ms McGrath and Mr Booker did not respond to enquiries.

Experts say the surge in support for Mr Booker indicates a shift – at least for the time being – in the way people in the United States have come to view the issue of racism and inequality. They also said, if Mr Booker were to win the primary, he would likely moderate his message to some degree as he took on Mr McConnell.

“We know that primary voters from both parties tend be more extreme in their views,” said Christina Greer, a professor of politics at New York’s Fordham University.

“If he does mange to win the primary, Booker may need to move a little to the centre to get enough votes to win in the general.”

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