Progressive Charles Booker Wins Primary to Challenge Rand Paul in November

Former Kentucky Rep. Charles Booker overwhelmingly won the state’s U.S. Senate Democratic primary on Tuesday, taking the progressive candidate one step closer to his goal of unseating far right Republican Sen. Rand Paul in November.

With about 97 percent of votes counted as of Wednesday morning, Booker has won over 73 percent of the votes in the state, beating out the next most popular candidate, Joshua Blanton, by over 60 points. Booker, a Black racial justice activist, ran on a platform of connecting the “hood to the holler” – in other words, connecting the state’s urban and rural residents in unity.

“The commonwealth of Kentucky has never had a Black person to be the top of the ticket, to be a major party nominee for U.S. Senate,” Booker said in his acceptance speech on Tuesday night. “If anybody tells you change is not possible, if anybody tells you that ceilings can’t break, tell them, ‘look at Kentucky.’”

Paul won the Republican nomination by a landslide, with over 86 percent of votes on Wednesday morning.

Polling has found that Paul has a strong chance of winning over Booker in the red state this fall; a Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy poll from earlier this year found that 55 percent of those polled said they’d vote for the incumbent, while 39 percent said they’d vote for Booker. A far right politician, COVID denier and supporter of Donald Trump’s attempted coup, Paul has been a U.S. senator since 2011, largely representing a capitalist libertarian viewpoint.

Booker ran on a progressive platform, supporting proposals like Medicare for All and calling for a Green New Deal. He has said that Kentucky voters have been inspired by racial justice movements in recent years and that there are opportunities to unite Kentuckians, regardless of race or residence, behind common goals.

Major unions and progressive organizations have endorsed Booker; when Booker ran to oust Sen. Mitch McConnell in 2020, he gathered endorsements from popular progressive lawmakers like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York).

Democrats have historically had a hard time winning against Republicans in Kentucky. The last time the state had a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate was in 1999, over 20 years ago.

In 2020, Amy McGrath – an establishment-backed Democrat who spent millions to defeat Booker in the primary – roundly lost to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has been in office since 1985. McConnell won by nearly 20 points, despite the nearly $91 million spent on the race by McGrath’s campaign.

At the time, political reporters and progressives said that Booker could have won against McConnell, had the Democratic party establishment not lined up behind McGrath, who the Louisville Courier-Journal editorial board called “unimaginative and uninspiring” in their endorsement of Booker. Considering that Booker lost by only about 3 points to McGrath in that election despite having been outraised 50-to-1 in campaign funds was a show of the progressive appetite among Kentucky voters, analysts said.

This time around, as of the end of April, Paul has over $8 million on hand going into the general election campaign, while Booker has only around $470,000, according to OpenSecrets. The race will be closely watched. While Booker faces long odds, a triumph over Paul would be a huge win for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.