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An Interracial, Intergenerational Battle Is Brewing In The Race To Replace Mitch McConnell

A newcomer’s critique of Amy McGrath is stirring tension in the race to oust Trump’s most powerful ally in Washington.

Last updated on January 9, 2020, at 12:05 p.m. ET

Posted on January 9, 2020, at 11:07 a.m. ET

Leah Millis / Reuters

WASHINGTON — A Kentucky state lawmaker who is trying to take down Sen. Mitch McConnell said the establishment-backed Democrat he's running against in the state's primary is the wrong candidate to alleviate the Senate majority leader's "stranglehold" on power.

As he seeks to gain name recognition against steep competition, Kentucky state Rep. Charles Booker said that “grossly substantial” racial and economic inequality in the state requires a Senate candidate who is eager and ready to engage a new Democratic coalition in the state, especially among the tens of thousands of Kentuckians granted the franchise to vote by executive order last year.

Allies who publicly support marginalized groups but are not part of the communities themselves are not enough at a time when Kentuckians are impatient for change, Booker said.

Booker told BuzzFeed News in an interview that he didn’t think the “realities” of structural racism that he’s lived with his whole life were necessarily on the radar of his chief Democratic opponent, Amy McGrath.

McGrath’s campaign hit back at Booker’s characterization in an email. Her campaign manager Mark Nickolas said McGrath’s “persistence” to become a Marine fighter pilot was passed down from her mother and that their struggles were equally important for voters to consider in the political fray of 2020. “It’s not a zero-sum game,” he said.

Booker is a 35-year-old state representative from Louisville. He traversed the state on an exploratory basis before officially launching his Senate effort this past Sunday.

Booker’s biography as Kentucky’s youngest black lawmaker alone will draw interest, but it’s unclear if that will be anywhere near enough to overcome McGrath’s standing. He will have to work to convince Democrats that recent trends — including the emergence of newly elected Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, and the signing of an executive order to restore the right to vote to nearly 150,000 nonviolent offenders — are markers that Kentucky is heading in a new direction. McGrath is still the establishment’s choice despite losing her 2018 House race in Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District to Rep. Andy Barr.

McGrath, who said she raised over $6 million in the last quarter of 2019, also already has the backing of the super PAC Fire Mitch Save America.

Booker said he won’t be accepting money from a super PAC because of his “conviction” that big money ostracizes regular people from the political process.

“The majority of us in Kentucky are broke,” he said.

He believes he has a more powerful message for the time than McGrath does — on guns, for instance, Booker said he will keep a mandate to both respect the right to bear arms as protected in the Constitution and a moral obligation to keep Kentucky families safe.

Booker said what excites him most is the response from voters who trust him to advance the struggle of everyday Kentuckians. Without naming names, in one moment of candor over the phone, Booker said he was perplexed by leaders who say they want to beat Trump, but are unable to engage in the complex range of the political left’s thoughts, opinions, and anxieties — to answer with their representation the question of whether, as the writer Anand Giridharadas asked in a 2015 speech, there is room among the “woke” for the “still waking.”

Booker wants to be that leader for Kentucky because when McConnell leaves office, “we’ve still got a whole lot of work to do,” he said.

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