The protests that broke out after the police killing of George Floyd have already had sweeping effects across the country, as the large demonstrations and Americans’ increasingly positive view of them has forced political and social changes that would have been dismissed as radical just a month ago.
That the political perception of the protests has changed dramatically, however, is also increasingly evident in Kentucky’s suddenly intriguing Democratic Senate primary, where demonstrations against the police killing of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor have jolted the race and helped boost the upstart campaign of state Rep. Charles Booker in the race to take on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Thanks in part to his frontline role in Louisville’s protests, Booker has suddenly emerged as a credible threat to front-runner Amy McGrath, an ex-Marine fighter pilot who has long been considered the overwhelming favorite. And as the race reaches its closing days, Booker, who in 2018 became the youngest Black state lawmaker elected in Kentucky in nearly a century, is banking his final pitch to voters on his active support for and participation in the protests over Taylor’s killing.
In a new television ad that will begin airing in Kentucky on Tuesday, Booker’s insurgent campaign will draw a contrast between his appearance at and McGrath’s absence from the protests that broke out over the police killing of Taylor, a Black woman whom Louisville Metro police shot and killed in March, and David “Ya Ya” McAtee, a Black Louisville man whom law enforcement killed in June as they tried to break up a late-night gathering during the demonstrations.
The ad focuses on McGrath’s answer to a question about the protests during a June 1 Democratic debate, when the former Marine said that she hadn’t attended demonstrations in Louisville or elsewhere in the state because she was at home with her family. She also cited the ongoing coronavirus pandemic as a reason for avoiding the crowds.
It then shows Booker telling a large Louisville crowd that he was standing before them “as your brother, as your cousin, as your neighbor” and as “your fellow good troublemaker.”
The ad, backed by a $640,000 statewide buy, is Booker’s second of the campaign cycle, after he debuted on TV last week following a late fundraising surge.
How much the protests have affected the race is unclear, given the lack of independent polling in it. But they have clearly helped inject momentum into Booker’s campaign, catapulting the young, progressive lawmaker into the statewide and national spotlight in the race’s final days.
Booker took on a leading role at the demonstrations, appearing with protesters and joining calls for Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer to fire and prosecute the three Louisville police officers who shot and killed Taylor after using a “no-knock” warrant to enter her home in March.
Booker’s front-and-center participation in the protests likely boosted his popularity in Louisville, Kentucky’s largest city and its biggest pocket of reliable Democratic, and increasingly progressive, voters.
“This is a city that’s been on edge and Charles has been on the frontlines of it very much so from day one,” Matt Erwin, a Democratic strategist in the state, told HuffPost of Booker’s rise last week.
As the protests spread across Kentucky in June, Booker’s message may also resonate with voters even in rural parts of the state: Over the weekend, Booker marched with demonstrators in Letcher County, a rural Appalachian enclave where the population is 98% white, according to Census figures.
Booker, who favors Medicare for All to expand health care access and a Green New Deal to address climate change, last week earned endorsements from New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the two biggest names in progressive politics.
He also won the backing of the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Lexington Herald Leader ― Kentucky’s two largest newspapers. The Herald-Leader’s editorial board chose Booker, it said, because the protests and the pandemic had made it clear that “now is the time for bold and brave ideas.”
The power of the demonstrations has altered McGrath’s approach, as well. Last week, she touted her own vision for police reform in an email to supporters, saying that she supported independent investigations whenever police used force that caused harm or death. She also called for expanding racial bias and de-escalation training for police, and requiring every police officer to wear a functioning body camera.
McGrath may still be the favorite to emerge as the Democratic choice to take on McConnell.
McGrath has outraised McConnell so far in 2020, and has nearly $20 million on hand, a figure that dwarfs Booker’s total even after his late haul from donors. McGrath has been airing television ads in the race for nearly 10 months, and likely enjoys a considerable advantage on Booker when it comes to name recognition among voters, too.
The only polling data available has come from campaigns’ own internal surveys, including one Booker released this weekend that showed him down 10 points ― 49-39 ― to McGrath. The survey found the gap between them was smaller among Kentuckians who hadn’t already voted in a primary that includes mail-in and early voting because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The poll’s small sample size makes it difficult to assess its potential accuracy, and Booker’s rise may have begun too late to fully close the gap on McGrath. But Booker touted it as another sign of the momentum that first became visible as the protests erupted. On Sunday, he posted a three-word message aimed at Kentucky voters on Twitter: “We are surging,” he said.
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