Charles Booker launches another Senate bid in Kentucky

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Democrat Charles Booker Speaks to a gathering of supporters as he announces his candidacy for the United States Senate at the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage in Louisville, Ky., Thursday, July 1, 2021. He will be running against incumbent Rand Paul, R-Ky. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Democrat Charles Booker launched another campaign for the U.S. Senate on Thursday, reprising his “hood to the holler” theme in hopes of forging an urban-rural coalition powerful enough to unseat Republican incumbent Rand Paul next year in Kentucky.

Booker, a Black former state lawmaker, rose to prominence in 2020 by touting racial and economic justice themes that coincided with protests that erupted in Louisville and elsewhere nationwide over the deaths of Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans in encounters with police.

Republicans quickly portrayed Booker as a “proud socialist” out of step with the state's electorate, pointing to his support for a Green New Deal in coal-producing Kentucky. Paul criticized Booker's stance on policing issues and predicted Kentuckians will reject it. The senator, an ardent free-market advocate, rails against socialism, saying "nothing in life is really free.”

Booker narrowly lost last year's Democratic primary to an establishment-backed rival, who was trounced by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell in the general election in GOP-leaning Kentucky. Booker, who served one term in the legislature, is promoting the same unabashedly progressive agenda in his latest campaign against the libertarian-leaning Paul.

“This really is going to be a conversation about the challenges Kentuckians are facing, and how we push for structural change so that we can heal our commonwealth,” Booker said in a phone interview with The Associated Press.

Republicans predicted that Booker's plans for change would fall flat with the state's voters.

“Kentuckians reject far-left ideas like these every chance they get, and Charles Booker’s campaign for the U.S. Senate will be no different,” state GOP Chairman Mac Brown said.

Booker formally launched his candidacy in a social media announcement. He stressed his social and economic justice message, saying: “We can make freedom mean that every community across Kentucky is thriving with good-paying union jobs. That we're not just working to struggle less, but that we're owning, we're creating, we're building pathways to wealth all over Kentucky.”

This time, Booker starts with broader name recognition and a more established fundraising network, the product of a late-surging campaign in 2020 that nearly wrested the Democratic nomination away from former fighter pilot Amy McGrath.

But Booker enters the race as a decided underdog against Paul, who is seeking a third term representing a state that has not elected a Democrat to the Senate since Wendell Ford in 1992.

Booker, who grew up poor in an inner-city Louisville neighborhood, touts Medicare for all, anti-poverty programs, a clean-energy agenda and criminal justice changes. Booker injects his own life struggles into his speeches, talking about having to ration his insulin in the past. His trademark slogan “from the hood to the holler” is based on the notion that poor rural whites face many of the same generational economic challenges he did.

In portraying Paul as out of touch, Booker said: “He’s an eye doctor but he doesn’t see us.”

“He treats Kentucky as his own step-stool as he’s climbing his way to cozy up with his wealthy friends and these big corporations that are exploiting us," Booker said. "Whenever we need leadership, he is never there. And when he does open his mouth to talk ... he’s embarrassing us.”

Paul, once a presidential campaign rival of Donald Trump, became an ally of the former president. First elected to the Senate in the tea party-driven wave of 2010, Paul rails against socialism and big-government programs he says encroach on individual liberties and drive up the nation's debt. He embraces a more restrained foreign policy and is a frequent critic of foreign aid he says is wasteful.

Republicans contrasted Paul's record with Booker's aspirations for change.

“Booker is too liberal for Kentucky, and his socialist manifesto has no place in the Senate,” said Katharine Cooksey, spokesperson for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "Charles Booker, Bernie Sanders and their socialist allies are no match for conservative Senator Rand Paul, who proves each and every day that he will stand up for Kentuckians and Kentucky values.”

Paul’s campaign had more than $3 million in the bank at the end of March. Booker aides say he raised more than $500,000 in the initial weeks after forming an exploratory committee in the spring.

Paul has routinely reached out to Black Kentuckians during his Senate tenure. He has made numerous visits to predominantly Black neighborhoods in Louisville, the state's largest city, to discuss criminal justice and anti-poverty issues. Last year, Paul spoke out against the use of no-knock search warrants and the militarization of police departments.

Blacks make up about 8% of Kentucky's population, but Bluegrass state voters have elected two Black candidates — both Republicans — to statewide office in recent years. In 2019, Daniel Cameron was elected the state's attorney general, and in 2015, Jenean Hampton was elected lieutenant governor on a ticket with former Gov. Matt Bevin.

Another Democrat this week announced her candidacy for the Kentucky Senate seat. Educator Ruth Gao said on social media she’s running to confront the “uphill climb” people face due to unaffordable housing, low-paying jobs and student loan debt.