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Former Democratic legislator from Louisville will face uphill climb to unseat Republican U.S. Senator Rand in 2022
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
LOUISVILLE (CFP) — When he launched his first run for the U.S. Senate in 2020, few observers gave Charles Booker a snowball’s chance in a Kentucky August.
He was just 32, had served in the legislature for just one year, and was trying to wrestle the Democratic nomination away from Amy McGrath, a fundraising powerhouse who had the full backing of Senate Democrats and their leader, Chuck Schumer.
But then, Booker took a leading role in social justice protests in Louisville after the shooting death of Breonna Taylor, his charismatic style caught the imagination of the Democratic left, and — amid an uneven, uninspiring and hyper-cautious campaign from McGrath — he came within 16,000 votes of pulling off what would have one of the year’s biggest primary upsets.
Exiting the race, Booker told his supporters, “Don’t ever let someone tell you what’s impossible.”
A year later, he’s trying the impossible again, this time with a run for the state’s other U.S. Senate seat, held by Republican U.S. Senator Rand Paul.
“A lot of people don’t believe that change is possible in Kentucky. We’re going to prove the doubters wrong,” Booker told supporters at his kickoff rally in Louisville July 1. “We’re going to win this race, and we’re going to transform Kentucky, and it starts right now. Let’s go.”
Video of Booker’s announcement speech at end of story.
And Booker made it clear that whether or not his optimism is borne out, or whether or not the race against Paul ends up being competitive in the end, his quest to unseat Paul will be fiery, unapologetically liberal and in-your-face, in a way McGrath never was.
“Randal Howard Paul — I see you. I see you, but you don’t see us,” Booker said. “Rand Paul thinks we are a joke. He mocks us whenever he opens his mouth. He’s mocking us. He’s an embarrassment to Kentucky because he does not care.”
“He thinks his job is to stir dysfunction, to weaponize hate and essentially dismiss Kentuckians altogether.”
Rand’s response to Booker’s announcement telegraphed the likely Republican strategy against him; namely, pounding him on his more left-wing positions in a conservative state: “I just don’t think defunding the police and forcing taxpayers to pay for reparations will be very popular in Kentucky.”
What happened to McGrath in 2020 illustrates the decidedly uphill nature of Booker’s quest in 2022. She spent $90 million to lose to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell by 20 points, failing to even break 40%.
Of course, McConnell is a more formidable political force than Paul, and McGrath’s near loss to Booker in the Democratic primary — in which he beat her in Louisville-Jefferson County by 36,000 votes — was a glaring sign of her weakness as a candidate. Booker does have stronger political skills, and it seems likely at this point that he won’t have to battle through a primary.
Still, Donald Trump carried Kentucky by 26 points in 2020, and Paul heads into the race with Trump’s endorsement. And a Democrat has not won a Senate race in the commonwealth for 30 years.
Booker’s theory of the race is that he can reach, rally and motivate voters on the left, rather than trimming his sails to appear more moderate, which did not work for McGrath. To that end, he has hired two campaign operatives involved in Democratic U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock’s runoff win in January, which won with a rallying-the-base strategy.
Booker, like Warnock, is a charismatic African-American candidate with an engaging, pulpit speaking style. However, Kentucky has a much smaller black population than Georgia and is much less urban. Louisville’s impact on the statewide vote will not be as determinative as Atlanta’s was.
Indeed, Booker’s loss to McGrath shows the challenges of a base-centric style in the Bluegrass. He beat her in Louisville and Lexington, but she won the primary by carrying most of the rest of the state.
So, the key question for 2022 is, can he find enough votes in more heavily populated parts of the state to overcome Paul’s margins in more rural areas? Or can he cut into those margins with an economic appeal to rural voters in poorer counties in Eastern Kentucky, where Democrats still have local influence?
Another wild card in this race is the amount of institutional support Booker might get from national Democrats, for a race that is seen as rather less than winnable. The powers-that-be who went all in for McGrath may be wary of going down that road again, although, as Paul’s foil, Booker should be able to raise enough money on his own to be competitive.
It is not impossible for a Democrat to win statewide in Kentucky, as Governor Andy Beshear proved in 2019. Then again, Beshear was running against Matt Bevin, whose performance as governor had made him as popular as a bad rash. Paul starts the race in much better shape.
Booker starts the race with an audacious belief in his own chances, and he has clearly decided that caution is not the better part of valor. While that may or may not end up making a senator, it will make the Kentucky Senate race among them most compelling of the 2022 cycle.
Video of Charles Booker’s announcement
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Only 18 join Trump’s push for $2,000 coronavirus relief checks, while 51 vote to sustain veto of defense spending bill
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
WASHINGTON (CNN) — Southern U.S. House Republicans were largely unswayed by President Donald Trump’s call for larger coronavirus relief checks in a key vote Monday, and most of them then voted to override the president’s veto of a defense spending bill that had passed earlier in the month with broad bipartisan support.
Trump had threatened to veto a coronavirus funding bill because it did not provide Americans with more generous relief checks, before signing it Sunday. But House Democrats brought a stand-alone bill to the floor to increase checks from $600 per person to $2,000, and 44 Republicans joined with almost all of the Democrats to pass it by a margin of 275 to 134 and send it to the Senate.
However, among the 99 Southern Republicans in the House, just 18 joined in the effort to make relief checks more robust — Reps. Robert Aderholt of Alabama; James Comer and Hal Rogers of Kentucky; Rick Crawford of Arkansas; Mario Diaz-Balart, Francis Rooney and John Rutherford of Florida; Michael Burgess, Kay Granger, Bill Flores, Will Hurd, Mike McCaul and Pete Olson of Texas; Clay Higgins of Louisiana; Tom Cole and Frank Lucas of Oklahoma; David McKinley of West Virginia; and Denver Riggleman of Virginia.
Hours later, the House, as expected, overrode Trump’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Bill, with 109 Republicans, including 51 Southern Republicans, voting in favor of the first successful veto override of his presidency.
Just 35 Southern Republicans voted to sustain the president’s veto including 12 Southern Republicans who had voted for the defense bill but switched sides on the override vote — Comer, Diaz-Balart, Burgess, McKinley, Rick Allen of Georgia, Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee, Kevin Hern of Oklahoma, Barry Loudermilk of Georgia, Carol Miller of West Virginia, Gary Palmer of Alabama, John Rose of Tennessee, and Bruce Westerman of Arkansas. Greg Steube of Florida, who did not vote when the bill came to the floor, also voted against the override.
Five other Southern Republicans who supported the bill’s passage opted not to oppose Trump on the veto override and did not vote — Reps. Andy Barr of Kentucky, Gus Bilirakis of Florida, Kenny Marchant of Texas, Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma, and Phil Roe of Tennessee. Jody Hice of Georgia, who opposed the bill, also did not vote on the override.
Twenty-two Southern Republicans opposed both the original bill and the veto override, including House Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Trump’s most vocal defender in the House, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida.
All 50 Southern Democrats serving in the House voted for the $2,000 checks and the veto override.
Trump vetoed the defense spending bill because he objected to a provision requiring name changes for military bases named for Confederate officials, mostly in the South. He also wanted Congress to repeal an unrelated provision that protects digital media companies from liability for posting third-party content.
The veto put Republicans in the awkward position of choosing between loyalty to Trump and supporting a bill to fund military operations, including pay raises for the troops.
After the House override, Trump took to Twitter to denounce the action as “a disgraceful act of cowardice and total submission by weak people to Big Tech.”
The bill had passed December 8 by a veto-proof margin of 335 to 78, with the support from 140 Republicans. The veto override is expected to clear the Senate.
However, the boost in relief checks is expected to have a much more difficult time in the Senate, where members have expressed concerns about the $300 billion cost of nearly the tripling the amount of the payments.
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Democrats in competitive races raise eye-popping amounts, which Republican incumbents are struggling to match
By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
Enough to give every woman, man and child in the Palmetto State $21. Graham could fork over $13 more. And if people in Kentucky could divvy up all the money raised by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democrat Amy McGrath for their contest, each one would pocket $33.
One of the biggest stories of the 2020 election has been the avalanche of campaign cash that candidates have been able to raise, much of it from small donors who contribute online. Campaign finance data from the Federal Elections Commission shows that in the South, as in the rest of the country, Democratic challengers have been the biggest recipients of this largesse.
Indeed, only two Southern Republican incumbents facing competitive challenges — John Cornyn in Texas and Kellly Loeffler in Georgia — have raised more money than their Democratic rivals. But Loeffler only did so by pouring $23 million from her considerable personal fortune into the race.
Of course, the candidate who raises the most money doesn’t win; the candidate with the most votes does. Just ask Beto O’Rourke, who burned through $80 million on his way to not becoming a U.S. senator from Texas in 2018.
But the fundraising dominance of Democrats has put many challengers within shooting distance as the election approaches, and raising money can also be a reliable sign of energy and momentum behind a campaign.
Harrison, for instance, has never won political office before and is running against a man who has been in Congress for 26 years in a state that has been red for generations. But the $109 million he has raised, at last count, has helped turn this race into a dead heat — and reduced Graham to begging supporters to send him money on the Fox News Channel.
Graham has raised $68 million, which in a normal year would be exponentially more money than a Senate candidate in South Carolina would need. But this year, he is facing a $40 million gap, as Harrison blankets the airwaves of South Carolina in an advertising storm.
In Kentucky, McGrath has nearly matched Harrison’s per-person fundraising total, raising at least $90 million, or $20 per person. McConnell–who as majority leader has access to every Republican donor under the sun–has not been able to keep up, coming in at $57 million at last count.
In Alabama, the only state where Republicans are trying to oust a Democratic incumbent, U.S. Senator Doug Jones has raised $27 million, dwarfing the $8.2 million collected by Republican challenger Tommy Tuberville.
Another state with a significant disparity between Republican incumbent and Democratic challenger is Mississippi, where Democrat Mike Espy has raised $9.3 million for his rematch against Republican U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, more than three times as much as she has raised at $3 million.
The fundraising disparity has generated national attention on the possibility of an Espy upset — which shows how fundraising alone can change the conversation about a race.
In Georgia, which has two Senate races this year, five candidates have raised a combined $110 million, with Democrat Jon Ossoff leading the pack at $33 million. He is running against Republican U.S. Senator David Perdue, who has raised $21 million.
In the special election for the other seat, Loeffler has raised $28 million, $23 million from personal loans. Democrat Raphael Warnock has raised $22 million, while Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Colllins, who is trying to come at Loeffler from the right, trails badly at just $6 million.
Warnock, a political newcomer, surged to the front in polls of this race after he put his campaign money to use running ads. Though Collins has struggled badly in fundraising, polls show him still neck-and-neck with Loeffler for the second spot in the January runoff.
In Texas, Democrat MJ Hegar has raised $24 million compared to $31 million for Cornyn. However, she has been closing the gap with two strong fundraising quarters.
These are the figures reported with a week to go before the election. Given the prodigious pace of fundraising, the final numbers for many of these races are likely to be even larger by the time the votes are counted.
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Races in North Carolina, Alabama on national radar; Lindsey Graham faces stiff challenge in South Carolina
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
Fourteen Southern U.S. Senate seats will be on the ballot in November, putting half of the South’s seats in play with control of the chamber very much up for grabs.
Of these seats, one presents a likely pickup opportunity for Republicans, while three Republican incumbents are facing stiff challenges. Three other seats are somewhat competitive but with incumbents still favored, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell‘s race in Kentucky.
Five senators — four Republicans and one Democrat — are cruising toward re-election, with Republicans also likely to keep an open seat in Tennessee. A special election in Georgia with candidates from both parties running in the same race is a wild card that will be difficult to predict — and could potentially decide which part controls the Senate when the dust clears.
Here is your guide to the 2020 Southern Senate races.
Jones has had a target on his back since he won a special election in 2017 over Republican Roy Moore, whose candidacy imploded in a sex scandal. Jones was the first Democrat elected to a Senate seat in the Yellowhammer State since 1992; his vote to convict President Donald Trump in his impeachment trial has put his continued tenure in jeopardy. Tuberville, the former head football coach at Auburn University, is making his political debut, impressively taking out a field of prominent Republicans in the primary, including Jeff Sessions, who held this seat for 20 years before leaving to join the Trump administration. If Jones somehow manages to hang on, it will be perhaps the biggest surprise on election night.
Cunningham, an attorney who served a single term in the legislature 20 years ago and made an unsuccessful Senate bid in 2010, was recruited by Democratic leaders in Washington to run against Tillis, who is seeking a second term after ousting former Democratic Senator Kay Hagin in 2014. This seat was once held by Jesse Helms, and no one has managed to win a second term since he gave it up in 2002. Cunningham has raised $15 million, slightly more than Tillis, and has led consistently in polls. The outcome of the presidential race in this battleground state may be key here. If Donald Trump wins, Tillis is likely to keep his seat as well; if he doesn’t, Cunningham will be in the driver’s seat.
Over the past four years, Graham has become one of Trump’s biggest cheerleaders, after spending much of the 2016 campaign trashing him. That about-face spared him from the kind of primary challenge he had to beat back in 2014, but Harrison, a former state Democratic party chair, is hoping Graham’s association with the president will turn off enough Palmetto State voters to put him over the top. Harrison has raised a staggering $30 million — an unheard of sum for a Democrat in South Carolina — to stay even with the incumbent in the money chase. While polling shows the race is competitive, Trump is expected to carry the state, and the universe of Trump-Harrison voters may be too small to flip this seat.
It’s been a long time since Georgia has been competitive in a presidential or senatorial contest, but polling has shown Ossoff within striking distance of Perdue, who is seeking a second term. Ossoff built a national profile by raising more than $30 million for a special U.S. House election in 2017 that he narrowly lost. He hasn’t raised anywhere near that kind of money this time around, and Perdue enjoys a 2-to-1 fundraising advantage. Democrats insist that the Peach State’s changing demographics and an influx of newly energized, newly registered Democratic voters will lead to victory for Ossoff and Democratic nominee Joe Biden; Republicans scoff at such a scenario as delusional. If Biden makes a serious play for Georgia, it could help Ossoff; if Biden wins, Perdue will need to run ahead of Trump to survive.
Democrats had high hopes for flipping this seat, particularly after Beto O’Rourke nearly took out Ted Cruz in 2018. But O’Rourke passed on the Senate race to make a quixotic bid for president, and Hegar, a former military chopper pilot and Afghan war veteran who lost a House race in 2018, had to spend time and money fighting her way through a primary runoff. Cornyn entered the fall campaign with the benefit of incumbency and a huge financial advantage, in a state that hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1988. This could turn out to be a might-have-been race for Democrats — what might have been if O’Rouke had run instead.
Democratic leaders recruited McGrath for this race, enthused by her prodigious fundraising during an unsuccessful House race in 2018. But running against McConnell in Kentucky is a tall order, and she has not always seemed up to the task. Her campaign had an unsteady launch when she flipped positions on confirming Brett Kavanaugh, and she very nearly lost the Democratic primary after mishandling her response to racial justice protests that have roiled Louisville. After an uneven campaign, she decided change campaign managers in August, which is never a good sign. There’s a reason Mitch McConnell has been a senator since 1985 — he is perhaps the wiliest politician of his generation. His tenure in Washington seems likely to endure.
This race is a rematch of 2018, when Hyde-Smith beat Espy by 8 points in a special election runoff, running nearly 10 points behind what Trump did in 2016. Espy was encouraged enough by his showing to try to take her down again, hoping that the energy unleashed by social justice protests will galvanize black voters, who make up 37percent of the state’s electorate, the highest percentage in the country. However, if he couldn’t beat Hyde-Smith in a lower turnout midterm election, beating her with the presidential election on the ballot, in a very pro-Trump state, is likely to be a tall order.
In this special election to fill the seat vacated by Johnny Isakson, candidates from all parties run in the same race, with the top two vote-getters advancing to a December runoff. Loeffler is trying to keep this seat after being appointed to the post by Gov. Brian Kemp, who opted to pick the political newcomer instead of Collins, one of Trump’s biggest champions in the House. Collins defied the governor to run against Loeffler, splitting Peach State Republicans into two camps.
On the Democratic side, Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, has drawn support from the party establishment who see him as the best option to win the seat. But Lieberman, the son of former Connecticut U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman, has resisted pressure to leave the race in favor of Warnock, and polls have shown him remaining competitive. If Warnock and Lieberman split the Democratic vote, it could clear the way for both Loeffler and Collins to meet in an all-GOP second round. If one Republican and one Democrat get through, the outcome of the race is likely to depend on who those two candidates are.
Arkansas: U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (R) faces no Democratic competition after the lone Democrat who qualified abruptly left the race. The only person standing between Cotton and re-election is Libertarian Ricky Harrington.
Tennessee: Republican Bill Hagerty, the former U.S. ambassador to Japan, has a much easier path to Washington after the Democrat recruited and financed by party leaders to challenge for the seat lost his primary. He will now face Marquita Bradshaw, an environmental activist from Memphis who harnessed grassroots support to win the primary.
West Virginia: U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R) is not expected to have much trouble against Democrat Paula Jean Swearengin, an environmental activist who gained national exposure when her 2018 race against the state’s other U.S. senator, Joe Manchin, was featured in the Netflix documentary “Knock Down The House.”
Oklahoma: If U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe (R), as expected, wins a fifth full term over Democrat Abby Broyles, he will be 92 when this term ends in 2026. Broyles, a former TV reporter in Oklahoma City, has run a spirited campaign in which she’s needled the senator for refusing to debate her.
Virginia: Giving the Old Dominion’s increasingly Democratic tilt, U.S. Senator Mark Warner (D) is a clear favorite over Republican Daniel Gade, a former Army officer who was wounded in Iraq and now teaches at American University in Washington.
Louisiana: U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy (R) is competing in a jungle primary in November and will face a runoff in December if he doesn’t clear 50%. He avoided any major Republican opposition; the biggest Democratic name in the race is Shreveport Mayor Adrian Perkins.
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Results finally in after week of counting avalanche of absentee ballots
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
Final results showed McGrath with 45% to 43% for Booker, whose scrappy campaign surged from behind in the closing weeks of the race to nearly inflict an embarrassing defeat on the chosen candidate of the Democratic establishment in Washington.
McGrath, 45, a former Marine fighter pilot who narrowly lost a race for the U.S. House in 2018, will now take on Kentucky’s most formidable political figure, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is seeking a seventh term in November.
Reporting of final results was delayed for a week while elections officials counted hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots cast in a primary that had been postponed for nearly two months because of the coronavirus crisis.
Kentucky does not have primary runoffs, so McGrath won with a plurality.
Booker held a narrow lead in the in-person vote and beat McGrath by more than 20 points in Jefferson County, which includes Louisville. But she did better in the absentee vote and carried most of the rest of the state.
McGrath has raised more than $40 million and has the backing of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. She spent $20 million in the Senate primary, almost all of it on ads that focused on McConnell, rather than her primary opponents.
But Booker, 35, in only his first term in the legislature, came from behind by criticizing McGrath as a “pro-Trump Democrat” unable to motivate the party’s grassroots.
He got the backing of luminaries on the Democratic left such as U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, as well as snagging endorsements from state’s two largest newspapers, the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Lexington Herald-Leader.
One factor in the race was the effect of protests over police violence that have roiled Louisville, home to the state’s largest pool of Democratic voters, in the wake of the death of Breonna Taylor, an African-American woman who was mistakenly shot in her home by police executing a no-knock warrant.
In the race’s closing days, Booker went up with ads criticizing McGrath for not participating in the protests, which included a awkward clip from a recent debate in which McGrath said she wasn’t involved because she “had some family things going on.” By contrast, Booker was shown addressing the protest crowd will a bullhorn.