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Rejecting Idea 'Soft Centrism' Can Topple McConnell, Progressive Charles Booker Launches Visionary Grassroots Campaign in Kentucky

"We won't beat Mitch McConnell by running to the soft center and not taking any real positions... Democrats have tried that, and it fails every time."

Kentucky state legislator Charles Booker recently announced his progressive campaign for Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's seat, which he has held for Booker's entire life. (Photo: @Booker4KY/Twitter)

With a launch this week of a progressive challenge to unseat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky state legislator Charles Booker argued this week that only a visionary and pro-working class agenda—as opposed to the tried-and-failed centrism from other Democrats—is the only way to topple the powerful Republican leader who has grown out of touch with and betrayed his constituents.

The 35-year-old first-term state House member officially announced his run Sunday with a video he posted to social media and a pledge to "take Kentucky's future back" from McConnell.

"You know the name of the man I'm talking about, but he doesn't know your name," Booker says in the video. "He doesn't see you in the hospital bed or in the checkout line or at the safety drills in your classroom. He doesn't see you at all... He doesn't need hope or faith. He's got money and power."

Booker is a strong advocate of progressive policies including Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, and wrote in a letter to voters posted on his campaign website that his life experience has given him a deep understanding of the struggles facing many Kentucky residents.

"I feel the urgency of what it really means to be living in the poorest zip code in the state," Booker wrote. "As a diabetic paying as much as $1,000 a month for insulin, I have seen how the healthcare system has let us down. After getting an education at the University of Louisville, I was faced with the stark reality of student debt—like so many other people in this country."

Immediately after Booker announced his run in the Democratic primary, McConnell sent an email to his supporters denouncing his new opponent as a "radical liberal" for whom "the left-wing mob" would "funnel millions" into the campaign.

"Mitch, please. This is pitiful," Booker tweeted in response. "Mitch McConnell has 'radically left' Kentucky behind, and sold us out for political gain."

Booker's highest-profile opponent in the Democratic primary is Amy McGrath, who has criticized Medicare for All proposals and launched her campaign last summer by casting herself as a pro-Trump Democrat, saying McConnell has impeded President Donald Trump from following through on his 2016 campaign promise to bring jobs to Kentucky and "drain the swamp."

Announcing his campaign, Booker did not mention McGrath by name but made clear his rejection of the notion that a Democrat running in the red state of Kentucky should run as a centrist rather than engaging with working people on the issues and struggles that affect their daily lives.

"There are some even within the Democratic Party that say the only way to beat Mitch McConnell is to ignore the issues. To treat us like we don't matter and to run from some sort of soft center that doesn't take any positions," Booker told a crowd of supporters, who responded with cries of, "No!"

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"We've tried that and it loses every time and we can't afford to lose anymore," he added.

Some recent political developments in Kentucky suggest that the state may be headed for a more progressive future, reminiscent of its past as the home of uprisings by miners against wealthy coal companies.

More than 140,000 Kentuckians won the right to vote last month after the state's new Democratic governor, Andy Beshear, signed an executive order restoring the rights to non-violent offenders who have completed their sentences.

Beshear's victory in November was heralded by journalist Krystal Ball as the result of a "working class revolt," following his Republican predecessor's attacks on Medicaid and workers.

Following Beshear's victory, the progressive think tank Data for Progress revealed a number of poll results from the state, showing high levels of support for teacher's strikes (38%), lowering drug prices by ending patents on medications like insulin (81%), raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour (56%), and shifting to 100 percent renewable energy (55%).

"Teachers, students, union leaders: we're all believers," Booker said in his campaign video. "I'm not the alternative to Mitch McConnell: we are."

Although McConnell has long been a deeply unpopular senator, with an 18% approval rating in Kentucky, his strong ties to Wall Street and the for-profit health insurance sector and his reliance on large donations have allowed him to raise more than $12 million this election cycle. 

McGrath has raised nearly $17 million so far and entered the new year with $9 million on hand.

Booker is running without support from a Super PAC, telling Buzzfeed that big money "ostracizes regular people from the political process."

"The majority of us in Kentucky are broke," he told the outlet.

At his campaign launch event this week, Booker rallied supporters—sounding much like 2020 presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders—and called on them to join a progressive movement focused not only on defeating McConnell but on investing in Kentuckians' future.

"We do that by building a movement," Booker said.

"Scared, Mitch? You should be," he added in a tweet this week. "You're not up against a candidate—you're up against a movement."

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