The odds were long. Booker, 35, was reared in Louisville’s West End, Kentucky’s largest African American community in what is a mostly white state. He had University of Louisville college and law degrees but no money and a pile of student loans. His dad and mom, Baptist preachers, had struggled to buy costly insulin to treat his Type 1 diabetes. He had no wealthy donors. National party bosses, led by Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York, were backing retired Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath. (They’d eventually help power her to raising more than $40 million.)
Well, to quote another West Ender, Muhammad Ali, Charlie Booker “shook up the world.” He has run a close race in a primary contest with very heavy turnout and still has a chance to win. In the pandemic, officials allowed everyone to vote by mail. Only about a quarter of the votes were counted on Election Day. The rest, including Louisville, where Booker surged dramatically, won’t be known officially until next week.
Even if he falls short, Booker’s rise is more evidence, perhaps the most vivid yet, that Democrats want to shake things up even if they felt — perhaps because they felt — they had no choice but to pick Joe Biden as their presidential nominee.
It’s one thing to knock off establishment Democrats in New York; it’s another to harry them in a state Donald Trump won by 30 points and last voted for a Democrat for president in 1996. “People are just tired of the same old bull----,” said Yarmuth, 72, who is not given to expletives.
So, what happened and why?
First, McGrath. Wooden, overcautious, mistake-prone, she ran on a bland, centrist platform that consisted primarily of pointing out that she was not McConnell and could beat him because she wouldn’t scare away all conservative voters in the fall.
Her endless cascade of straight-to-camera TV ads were duds, other Democrats complained. She endorsed — then un-endorsed — Brett M. Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court. Once it was clear that she was a weak candidate, her entire rationale — a safe bet to replace McConnell — deteriorated.
But there’s more to Booker’s run than McGrath’s shortcomings. His campaign was boosted by tragedy three months ago, with the death of 26-year-old medical technician Breonna Taylor, cut down in her home in a hail of bullets from Louisville police executing a “no-knock” warrant. The killing added to the fury sweeping the nation over racism in policing and gave Booker overnight visibility in his state and on social media. (McGrath gave him another boost by avoiding any visible presence at even the most placid of street demonstrations.)
Booker’s come-from-behind campaign became a powerful way for millennials and others to channel their outrage about racism into a constructive political response. Alumni of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s campaign engaged in the race, activating their network. Booker — as people in Kentucky who had seen him in the legislature knew — has the warm, pulpit-ready personality to handle a bigger stage.
Booker adopted much of the Sanders agenda — Medicare-for-all, Green New Deal, universal basic income, path to citizenship and more — but on the campaign trail and in his late-arriving ads he sounded more like an old-school, kitchen-table Democrat advocating government action on health care and jobs that would help people “from the hood to the holler.”
He kept that promise, riding his bus into eastern Kentucky, where residents suffer from opioid addiction, covid-19-induced recession and the steady loss of coal jobs. Stories of his battle with diabetes helped him connect emotionally with folks who needed medication and health care and had neither. “He drew good crowds in the mountains,” said Matt Jones, a popular sports talk show host. “Voters appreciate it when you show up.”
In Louisville, a younger generation of voters, black and white, were eager to hear him. Many had grown up in a school system that for decades had successfully implemented federal court-ordered busing and seemed to respond to his local roots, what he called a program of “structural change” and his Baptist faith. As the first round of votes came in Tuesday night, Booker told Joy Reid of MSNBC, “I’m proud of Kentucky. We’re feeling good about our chances now.”
Even if Booker loses to McGrath when all the votes are counted, his future is bright. And if he wins, a race against McConnell would be a national sensation — and send a cautionary message to Biden. Just arguing that you are not the other guy is not a guarantee of victory. And many Democrats this year want something more than just a restoration.