Kentucky House Representative Charles Booker surged into the US national spotlight in June with an unapologetically leftist campaign for the Kentucky Senate Democratic nomination. His progressive platform, which garnered high-profile endorsements from Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and House Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, gained attention for the emotive and powerful way he addressed Black Lives Matter protests.
The Senate hopeful expressed solidarity with Louisville activists and spoke publicly on his own experiences with police brutality, specifically being tear-gassed for peaceful protest. He also discussed his proximity to the tragedy of Breonna Taylor’s death. He shared how she was a friend of his cousin, Tyrone Booker Jr, who himself was another African American victim of police injustice, having been wrongfully detained for a robbery he did not commit.
Booker clarified his stance on criminal justice reform in a June 1st debate, articulating the “need to reform and reimagine how we engage with policing”, and arguing that “instead of a militaristic operation”, justice should focus on bringing “more partnership and collaboration into the community” and creating “more accountability”.
This progressive notion of demilitarising and restructuring the way criminal justice is administered aligns with the rest of Booker’s radical policy platform. Booker supports AOC’s ‘Green New Deal’, enthusiastically referring to it as the ‘Kentucky New Deal’, along with other progressive hallmarks such as Medicare For All and Universal Basic Income.
Despite Booker’s promising grassroots momentum, former fighter pilot Amy McGrath ultimately emerged victorious due to an inundation of absentee ballot votes cast in advance of the recent amplification of the BLM movement.
McGrath, a marine veteran who controversially advocates for the predatory and exploitative ‘Military Tuition Assistance’ programme that lures impoverished teenagers into military service, received disproportionately more attention early in the race due to her endorsement from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and her recruitment by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Schumer was reportedly attracted to McGrath after her failed 2018 Congressional bid, a relatively close race that saw McGrath cynically cast her military service as an empowering resistance to patriarchy. This nauseating display of white feminism, which The Intercept characterised as an ‘intoxicating combination of imperialism, tokenistic feminism, and resistance’ even featured a campaign video with footage of McGrath in combat, presumably in the act of killing civilians.
In 2018, McGrath positioned herself as an anti-establishment candidate, arguing at a ‘Women In The World’ event that “voters are tired of the establishment…picking the winners”. However, this time around, McGrath was happy to accept and capitalise on her DSCC endorsement, which helped her collect campaign donations from corporations such as Google, Microsoft, IBM and Apple, which together donated $193,689. McGrath raised nearly $47m in total, whereas Booker’s grassroots campaign capped out at $788,525.
Despite this disparity, McGrath still attempted to claim the populist moniker of ‘anti-establishment’, unconvincingly declaring that “as a woman in the military, [she] had to repeatedly fight the establishment” and was therefore committed to “ending the corrosive grip that corporate special interests have on…federal government”, a statement irreconcilable with the corporate donations she accepted.
This is one of many hypocrisies pervading McGrath’s campaign.
In a February TV advertisement, she boasted of fighting for “affordable healthcare…not tax cuts for wealthy donors”. But in January, she endorsed Biden for President, the candidate who promised wealthy donors such as multi-millionaire Roger Altman that ‘nothing would fundamentally change’ for them, indicating that he would not reverse Trump’s tax cuts, which enabled billionaires to pay less in average effective tax rate than the bottom half of American households.
McGrath also contradicted herself regarding the Supreme Court nomination of Justice Kavanaugh. In 2018, when McGrath was running a ‘female fighter pilot’ campaign on the momentum of the ‘Me Too’ movement, which ultimately propelled a record number of women into the 116th Congress, she conveniently opposed the nomination of Kavanaugh on account of his sexual assault allegations.
However, in an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal in July 2019, she remarked that ‘there was nothing in his record that…would disqualify him’, before abruptly backpedalling and tweeting that ‘upon further reflection…would have voted no’. This reluctance to condemn Kavanaugh is attributable to concerns surrounding unseating Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who frequently references his confirmation of socially conservative justices as an incentive for reelection.
McGrath has bought into the misconception that to supplant McConnell she must emulate him. She has advertised herself as a ‘pro-Trump Democrat’ who would more effectively enact Trump’s 2016 agenda than McConnell. This strategy is unlikely to work.
In 2018, Andy Barr defeated McGrath by incessantly repeating remarks she made at a Boston fundraiser, where she described herself as “further left…than anyone in the state of Kentucky”. McConnell need only repeat these comments to dispel the notion that McGrath is more conservative than him.
The Democratic establishment has thrown their weight behind a candidate who, in the words of Republican strategist Josh Holmes, “has the uncanny ability to piss everyone off at the same time”. This misstep squanders the opportunity to unseat McConnell at his most vulnerable.
Recent liberal-leaning Supreme Court decisions concerning immigration and LGBTQ+ civil rights have undermined McConnell’s central campaign message – that he’s integral to retaining conservative, Christian values in America. Recent SCOTUS decisions have been socially liberal but fiscally neoliberal, with the recent Atlantic Coast Pipeline decision cementing the court’s big-business-friendly inclination.
The American Bar Association observed that ‘since 2006, the Supreme Court has ruled in favour of the position advocated by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 70% of cases’. But the court has been less predictable with social and religious issues. The electorate of Kentucky, the fifth poorest state in the nation, is unlikely to benefit from the Court’s corporate-friendly decisions, and therefore is unlikely to be satisfied with the Court’s conservative credentials. This issue, the Republican President’s mishandling of coronavirus, and existing criticisms of McConnell as ‘Moscow Mitch’ may well compound to depress the Republican base significantly in November.
These factors could have converged to pave a victory path for an insurgent, grassroots Democratic candidate ‘from Kentucky’s poorest zip-code’, with palpable enthusiasm behind him and a genuine commitment to confronting the realities of poverty in Kentucky. Instead, the Democratic establishment churned out an uninspiring, gaffe-prone, imperialist, centrist candidate who alters her policy positions according to her most recently conducted focus group.