This column is being printed as we await word of who won the Kentucky Democratic primary for U.S. Senate.
Regardless of the nominee, the myth about the type of candidate Democrats need to run in Kentucky to win has been debunked: It’s not a moderate Democrat. It’s not even a progressive Democrat. We want candidates who are candid and genuine and do not pander for our votes.
Charles Booker proved that Kentucky voters — “from the hood to the holler,” as he likes to say — respond to candidates who are honest and unafraid, while we could practically see the marionette strings holding up McGrath in that folksy, contrived setting on the stool for her campaign ads. She took that stool everywhere — from the barn to the front porch!
Even if McGrath wins, it’s fair to say Booker out-campaigned her. According to internal polling reported by The Hill, Booker trailed McGrath by more than 50 percentage points as recently as April. McGrath had raised over $40 million since she started her campaign last summer, 10 times more than Booker has raised. But see what he has done since!
Of course, as always in politics, the impact of an unpredictable news cycle is debatable. Certainly, Booker’s campaign was helped by energy from the racial justice protests, which happened after the primary date was delayed by a month because of COVID-19. But Booker didn’t flip the Kentucky Democratic Party on its head just because he is a Black man who can personally relate to the struggles core to the national racial protest movement. He shocked the state and national establishment (Google: Chuck Schumer DSCC) by showing up, literally and figuratively. He showed up at protests day after day. He showed up in Marion County, stood in the rain and spoke passionately about why he is running for Senate.
By contrast, McGrath cut a campaign ad explaining why she ran for Senate: She checked all the items on her political consultants’ checklist, too. She mentioned her military background and thanked the Democratic president who made it possible for a woman to become a fighter pilot while not mentioning that president by name.
(It wasn’t exactly the same as Alison Lundergan Grimes refusing to admit she voted for Barack Obama while debating Mitch McConnell in the 2014 Senate election, but it was pretty close and similarly disappointing.) Being moderate doesn’t make Democrats more or less appealing in Kentucky. It’s whether they trust you. In just the first hours of her campaign, McGrath showed a big bloc of Democratic voters they could not trust her.
She said she would have voted in favor of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, only to reverse her position a few hours later. The problem wasn’t that she might have voted for Kavanaugh if she were in the Senate. The problem was that she had just entered the race and didn’t fully understand her own position on the most controversial, impactful political issue in the country at that time.
She further confused Democrats — and completely alienated the progressive side of the base — by indicating she is a pro-Trump Democrat. In many of her early campaign ads and TV appearances she suggested she was running against McConnell because he has obstructed in the Trump agenda.
Nobody believes she truly supports Trump. Hell, most don’t believe McConnell actually supports Trump, rather it’s a union of convenience and self-interest.
All of this is made worse by the fact that McConnell is the most unpopular politician in the country. He’s not even popular in Kentucky, where he has been elected to the U.S. Senate six times. When running against someone as disliked as McConnell, the campaign against him has to be about him and McGrath has allowed it to be about her.
I voted for Charles Booker not because he has a progressive agenda but because he is genuine. If he is the nominee, I don’t have to worry about how he will challenge McConnell. It will be a referendum on McConnell and how he has betrayed the people of Kentucky, “from the hood to the holler.”
And, if McGrath is the nominee, who knows how she will campaign? Will it be a campaign against McConnell? Will it be an I’m-more-Trump-than-Mitch campaign? Will she admit she voted for Clinton in 2016?