LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Democrat Charles Booker won a key endorsement Tuesday from former statewide officeholder Alison Lundergan Grimes in a new sign of momentum for his upstart bid for his party’s nomination to challenge Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell in the fall.
Grimes, who lost a bitter, big-spending Senate race against McConnell in 2014, tweeted her endorsement of Booker, saying: “Together, let’s elect a new generation of leadership in KY!”
Grimes, a former two-term Kentucky secretary of state, later said the country needs leaders like Booker to “solve the monumental problems” facing the country.
Booker called the endorsement a “powerful sign” that he’s building a “Kentucky-powered movement.” He pointed to their shared commitment to expanding access to voting.
Democratic strategist Mark Riddle said the Grimes endorsement could help broaden Booker’s appeal, especially in rural Kentucky where he’s still trying to build name recognition.
“Alison is so widely respected among Kentucky Democrats, particularly in places that may not know Charles Booker well,” Riddle said. “Her endorsement will be meaningful.”
The state’s primary is June 23, but many Kentuckians have already voted by mail, which is being allowed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
For most of the campaign, Amy McGrath appeared to be gliding toward the Democratic nomination. She’s backed by the party’s national establishment and has raised prodigious amounts of campaign cash, enabling her to run TV ads since last year to build her statewide name recognition.
But Booker, a freshman state lawmaker from Louisville, has won a series of high-profile endorsements and started running TV ads late in the campaign.
Booker picked up endorsements from Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — the biggest stars in the progressive movement — and from Kentucky’s two largest newspapers, the Louisville Courier Journal and Lexington Herald-Leader.
Booker shares the progressive mantle with another Democrat in the Senate race, Mike Broihier. That could end up dividing votes among progressives, leaving a clear path for McGrath and bolstering her moderate credentials for the fight against McConnell in conservative Kentucky.
In his first ad, Booker said a “real Democrat” is needed to take on McConnell, the Senate majority leader who is seeking a seventh term. In his newest ad, Booker — who is black — plays up his presence on the front lines of protests over the deaths of black Americans by police.
The new ad shows Booker marching with protesters and speaking at demonstrations demanding justice for Breonna Taylor, who was killed in her Louisville home in March. The 26-year-old black EMT was shot eight times by narcotics detectives who knocked down her front door while attempting to enforce a search warrant. No drugs were found.
“I stand before you as a brother, as a cousin, as a neighbor, as a fellow good troublemaker,” Booker says as he’s shown speaking to protesters.
Louisville protesters also decried the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer put his knee on the handcuffed man’s neck for several minutes, even after he stopped moving and pleaded for air.
Booker’s new ad also takes a shot at McGrath. It shows a segment from a recent debate in which McGrath was asked if she had been with protesters in Louisville. She replied she had not. Asked why, McGrath said: “Well, I’ve been with my family and I’ve had some family things going on.”
During the debate, McGrath called the deaths of Taylor and Floyd tragic and said leaders need to listen to the demonstrators. McGrath later attended a vigil for Taylor and a prayer march, her campaign said.
Responding to the new ad, McGrath’s campaign said: “Instead of political attacks, we’re going to continue to highlight Amy’s vision for the state and defeating Mitch McConnell.”
The edgier Democratic race has given McConnell’s campaign a new opening to criticize McGrath.
McConnell spokeswoman Kate Cooksey said Tuesday that McGrath “thought she could buy her way into a general election,” adding: “No candidate has ever spent so much to generate support that only exists outside of Kentucky.”
Riddle said Booker’s vocal demands for change could strike a chord with Democratic voters.
“He captured a moment and sometimes moments define campaigns,” Riddle said.