This is a screenshot from WLKY, dated June 25, 10:50am: 79.4% reporting: 43.51% – Booker 40.04% McGrath
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville resident Ariane Kenion had never heard state Rep. Charles Booker’s name until June 1 when tragedy struck.
Local BBQ chef David McAtee, a Black man, had been killed by the Kentucky National Guard, and dozens of angry residents filled a corner at 26th Street and Broadway in a standoff with police.
Kenion was moved that Booker, a Democratic U.S. Senate candidate, showed up during such a tense situation.
The 35-year-old freshman legislator was among those who implored protesters to respect McAtee’s family as they waited for authorities to remove the body of the beloved barbecue operator from the scene.
Seeing Booker deliver that message in person and make calls to top officials in an attempt to diffuse the situation while running a major race left an impression.
“He is a strong man, with values,” Kenion said. “We need someone that’s going to stand with and beside people.”
The crowd listens as State Rep. Charles Booker speaks Sunday, May 31, 2020, during a Black Lives Matter healing rally in front of KFC Yum! Center in downtown Louisville.
Kenion, who is Black, and her husband, Henry, both voted for Booker on Tuesday at the Kentucky Exposition Center on June 23. She called his candidacy a wake-up call for Louisville and the country.
“Even if he doesn’t win, everybody is going to know his name,” Kenion said.
Booker mauled retired Marine Amy McGrath at the in-person vote at the fairgrounds in Louisville by a 5-to-1 margin. She received about 1,650 votes, whereas he raked in about 8,307, according to voting statistics from the county clerk’s office.
Once all the votes are counted by June 30, and no matter who wins the Democratic nomination to challenge Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in November, Booker has won a significant group of hearts and minds while creating an image of what Kentucky’s progressive left could be.
Three hours after the polls on Tuesday, Booker sprinted out of his 45-foot campaign bus to the cheers of a crowd gathered to celebrate the end of the campaign.
He took a lap around the field at the Paristown Pointe development in Louisville before he joined his mother, wife and two daughters on stage to give what sounded like a victory speech.
“We know the results are coming in, and they’re looking real good for us right now,” he said. “We going to shock the world … we’ve already won.”
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The multiracial crowd ranged from white left-leaning Generation Z idealists and Black Lives Matter activists to liberal Baby Boomers and counterculture rural folks. It’s a coalition that has argued mightily — if failing electorally — to try something different and break free from the statewide Democratic playbook of running to the political middle.
People bumped elbows and danced to hip-hop music with a candidate who may have given new life to the left in Bluegrass State politics.
“Mitch McConnell doesn’t want us to know this,” Booker said. “We have so much more in common… that if we stood together, we can do anything. That’s why I say from the hood to the holler, my family’s in Appalachia, too.”
State Rep. Charles Booker smiles while speaking at a rally for Booker at Highland Coffee Company on Bardstown Road on Wednesday, June 17, 2020.
Save perhaps Harvey Sloane, a former Louisville mayor, who made two unsuccessful bids for governor and one failed run for Senate, there are few true progressives who’ve gotten this far politically in Kentucky.
But here we are awaiting the election results with a candidate who seized the state and country’s attention from McGrath by running as what 19th-century civil rights advocates used to call a “race man” — an earnest, dapper role model who is unabashedly committed to Black uplift on a platform that talks up climate change, universal health care and full legalization of marijuana.
The irony is Booker’s ascent was ignited by two things that plagued African Americans.
The first being COVID-19, a pandemic that hit Black Kentuckians harder and put the May primary into overtime when Booker was down by as much 30 points, according to McGrath allies with knowledge of her and other super PAC’s internal polling.
Then a racial justice movement exploded in Booker’s backyard when the country began to focus on the death of Breonna Taylor, an unarmed Black woman shot in mid-March by Louisville police executing a “no-knock” search warrant.
Booker’s authenticity came through at a time when McGrath’s money was drowning him out as an un-electable contender.
Traditionally, Booker seizing the Black Lives Matter moment would be seen by traditional Democratic observers and experts as a mistake. But one reason he is able to be a “race man” and still trek into suburban and rural Kentucky is because the so-called “white woke” voters are beginning to emerge.
A Pew Research Center study released earlier this month found 67% of Americans say they now support the Black Lives Matter movement, compared to 43% four years ago.
What’s eye-opening is how that support is soaring across racial lines, especially among whites who saw a 40% to 61% hike among those who said they were either strongly or somewhat supporting the movement, according to the survey.
Demographer Bill Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, argues those increases are being fueled by the “white woke,” namely Millennials (folks born from 1981 to 1996), and Generation Z (born from 1997 to 2014).
Frey told CNN this week how those younger cohorts make up about 42% of the U.S. population right now, which is a larger share than Baby Boomers, who peaked at 37% in 1964.
It remains unclear if the “white woke” are enough to win in a general election (Booker is betting they can), but they certainly have a vital role in his Democratic primary coalition.
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A week ago, McGrath released internal polling showing the race 42% to 32% in her favor, but results from in-person Election Day voting show a competitive race with Booker up 43% to 40% over McGrath after some of the Jefferson County votes were counted.
McGrath’s inability to crack the 51% threshold with a $41 million operation that for months had primary voters all to herself on the TV airwaves is another marker of what Booker has already won.
But Booker’s supporters aren’t satisfied with moral victories.
The thinking within his inner circle is if the bulk of mail-in votes, especially in Louisville, were sent after Booker’s surge, he may be able to pull off a stunning 2-point upset.
Sources who orbit McGrath say her team is remaining confident as they await the final tally, but she issued a statement that for some sounded more like a concession.
“As we wait for results, I hope everyone takes a moment to get a little rest, recharge your battery, and buckle up for what’s next,” McGrath said in a statement on Tuesday. “The mission to defeat Mitch McConnell and defend our democracy goes on.”
McGrath’s tweet the next day also lacked any enthusiasm about the fall campaign, and talked more about counting the votes than overthrowing McConnell.
“We’re all eager to get results, but I am grateful for the extra effort and due diligence to make sure every voice is heard and every vote is counted,” she said.
Booker by contrast spent Wednesday going on national TV and telling supporters how he woke up hopeful, inspired and “humbled to just be a part of this moment.”
“I like our chances,” he tweeted on Wednesday.
Brace yourself, Kentucky and America. June 30 can’t get here fast enough.
Reach Phillip M. Bailey at email@example.com or 502-582-4475. Follow him on Twitter at @phillipmbailey.