How to Watch the Kentucky Democratic Primary
Candidate: Charles Booker
Charles Booker is currently the State Representative from Kentucky’s 43rd district. He’s been a trailblazer in progressive Kentucky politics, and is taking on juggernaut Amy McGrath, the Schumer-selected, DSCC-endorsed candidate with unlimited resources from out of state. Booker has been a powerful voice in a tumultuous political environment, a Black man who grew up in Kentucky’s poorest zip code and has been fighting to end racial injustice and police brutality his entire life. After numerous gaffes throughout her campaign, there hasn’t really been a good news cycle for McGrath. In a recent debate, she even said she wasn’t attending protests or organizing on the ground with other community leaders. Compare that to Booker, who has been racking up endorsements across the state and nationally, and you have to wonder: does the young progressive have a real shot to take down the most well-funded Democrat in Senate primary history?
There are three main candidates: Amy McGrath, Charles Booker, and Mike Broihier.
Mike Broihier is a progressive spoiler in almost perfect form. He has been shown in polls to have absolutely no chance of winning the election and while I admire his effort, his presence in the race, and his endorsement from Andrew Yang, are bad news for Booker.
McGrath had a scary amount of money at her pre-primary deadline. To date, she had raised about 40 million dollars. At the same point, Booker had raised a little under 800,000. At Beto’s last filing deadline, he had raised 70.2 million. That was for a general election with unprecedented funding from out of state.
If Booker loses, look straight to the money. With everything Booker has working in his favor, the difference could just be that he is outspent.
That’s not to say it’s all bad news. Booker has been endorsed by a wide range of local officials, McConnell’s opponent in 2014, national, more establishment-leaning organizations like MoveOn, and progressive organizations. It is fair to say other than Broihier’s endorsement from Yang, Booker has consolidated the progressive lane. The question will be if he can create a coalition that reaches beyond just progressives.
The 2019 Kentucky Democratic Primary for Governor
In 2019, there was a competitive Democratic primary for the opportunity to unseat Matt Bevin, the least popular governor in the country at the time. Andy Beshear, whose father was governor and who was a sitting statewide official, won that primary, beating out Adam Edelen who ran slightly to his left, and Rocky Adkins, who ran as a conservative, anti-choice Democrat. Here’s the map:
Adkins, who was from the more conservative Eastern Kentucky, racked up big numbers there. Here’s a chart of relative strength for each candidate in every county:
Beshear did well in Jefferson County, home to Louisville, winning 47.8% of the vote there. Edelen also did well there, getting 40.1%. Let’s take a look at some of the key areas in Kentucky to watch on Tuesday night so we can get a better sense of what Booker’s coalition might look like. In that way, we will want to focus on Edelen/Beshear voters.
The “Golden Triangle” that connects North Kentucky (the suburbs of Cincinnati), Lexington, and Louisville is where the majority of Booker’s votes will come from, as was the case with Edelen and Beshear in 2019. Within the Triangle, there is the micropolitan area of Lexington–Fayette–Frankfort–Richmond. Within each of those smaller areas, the demographics change and so did the votes in 2019:
The collar counties around Fayette ranged in the 2019 primary, but overall, Edelen and Beshear carried almost 75% of the vote here. Booker will be looking to have a big night in Lexington to make up for the margins he will almost surely lose in the areas to its east. Keep an eye on Fayette County the whole night; there will be a lot of precincts to watch. A hopeful margin might be ~65/35 Booker/McGrath.
Another small piece of density, the Frankfort area, made up of largely Franklin County, is a place Booker wants to win or at least draw even. Adkins did well here in 2019, but it’s another situation where it’s hard to know whether his presence as a longtime lawmaker played a major role in his success (Frankfort is home to the State House).
Mount Sterling (Blue)
Adkins dominated this area, winning 70% of the vote. Firmly in Eastern Kentucky, its an area to keep an eye on. Montgomery is the biggest county in this area and its demographics don’t look like Edelen or Beshear’s coalition; Booker will almost definitely lose here. The question is whether he can squeeze out something like 25–35% of the vote.
This small micropolitan area voted fairly evenly between Adkins and Beshear/Edelen. Assuming plenty of those Beshear voters break for McGrath, as well as most of the Adkins voters, it’s a good sign if Booker is drawing even here.
This has to be a big win for Booker. Edelen didn’t do extremely well here but Beshear did. The average age is the youngest of any county (33) in Kentucky and if Booker can’t capitalize on the large university (Western Kentucky University) and surrounding areas there, it’s a red flag. Fellow natives of Appalachia, Paula Jean Swearengin and Stephen Smith turned out Monogalia County (home to West Virginia University) in their primaries and it helped power their efforts.
North Kentucky/Cincinnati MSA
North Kentucky (most prominently, Boone, Kenton, and Campbell counties) is in the Cincinnati Metro Area and is a wealthier, more highly educated area that voted hard for Beshear. Booker needs to be winning here to deal with McGrath’s potential strength in areas outside the Golden Circle.
Jefferson County, home to Louisville, has a significant black population and some of the most significant wealth disparity in the state. Booker not only needs a blow out win here, he needs record high turnout. He’s from Louisville and while it’s almost certain to break for him, the answer is by how much. Edelen and Beshear together got about 90% of the vote so Booker will be looking to recreate similar, if not slightly worse, numbers.
Beshear did well out west, where the majority of voters are white, older, and low income. Beshear, who had the most money in the race, was able to reach many of those voters. Edelen, with more limited resources, had to focus on the Golden Triangle, while Adkins had to focus on his home region of Eastern Kentucky. If the western part of the state breaks hard for McGrath, it’ll be essential that Booker over performs in the Golden Triangle.
Mostly white, older, and low income, the rural parts of Eastern Kentucky make up a significant portion of the vote and McGrath will look to build on Rocky Adkins’ performance here, where he dominated after being a power broker in Eastern Kentucky and the State House for decades. McGrath needs a win here, especially because Adkins didn’t over perform in the rural parts of Western Kentucky.
This is the most unprecedented race of the 2020 cycle and I have a hard time projecting it with any accuracy. According to money, pure and simple, Booker has virtually no shot. But a lot of things point to that not being true.
Booker Internal (6/8–6/12): 39–49 Booker/McGrath
Data for Progress (6/13–6/15): 44–36 Booker/McGrath
It goes without saying that both these polls are pretty good for Booker, putting him right in the range of an upset. The Data for Progress poll especially has a lot of undecided voters, though with the momentum he’s picking up, maybe those late-breaking voters trend Booker. One small note: in that DFP poll, Booker was leading McGrath with rural voters by more than even suburban voters. If Booker does garner strength from those rural areas, it could put him over the top in a situation where McGrath does well in the Golden Triangle.
Betting Odds: PredictIt has odds at about 50/50 as of 6/18. That suggests a razor thin margin where either candidate can win.
Kentucky is slightly younger than the nation
McGrath has had a string of mistakes, gaffes, and miscues
3 major universities (Louisville, Bowling Green, and University of Kentucky)
Regardless of whether Booker wins, what he has built will be in place for a run against Rand Paul in 2022. This could be the first step in a long career for someone that should immediately be in consideration for the 2024 presidential nomination. With all this said, with everything I see, including the momentum, endorsements, and surge in fundraising, I think Booker hits McGrath hard in Louisville and the rest of the Golden Triangle, leaving the rurals as battleground areas. If Booker starts winning the majority of rural counties, the night will be a good one for Kentucky’s future. When I weigh the most recent activity and evidence, I believe Charles Booker will be the Democratic nominee to take on and beat Mitch McConnell in 2020.
Booker: 49% (Win)
Chance of Victory: 3/5