LOUISVILLE, Ky. — U.S. Senate candidate Charles Booker stood in a Louisville parking lot Wednesday morning, mask pulled down to his chin, and promised the crowd gathered there: “This is our time. We will win.”
Across town, hours later, former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath stood beside union workers in the muggy afternoon heat as they called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to let a roughly $3 trillion, Democrat-crafted coronavirus relief bill move forward.
And that evening, retired Marine, farmer and substitute teacher Mike Broihier — ever-mindful of the public health risks posed by COVID-19 — hosted a virtual town hall where Kentuckians could ask about education policies.
As the final days of a primary race marked by a pandemic and protests against racism and police brutality tick away to Tuesday’s Election Day, the top three Democratic candidates are taking different paths to the finish line.
But they all have the same goal: to persuade Kentucky Democrats they’re the one who can dethrone McConnell this November and end his 36-year Senate career.
“I would say that if anyone says they know what’s going to happen next week, I probably wouldn’t believe them because it really is a very, very fuzzy race,” Broihier said Tuesday.
Through TV and newspaper advertisements and a series of campaign events in cities around Kentucky, Booker is capitalizing on a late-in-the-game surge of support — sparked by his decision to march in recent protests in his hometown of Louisville, where the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor has caused national outrage.
Broihier is largely avoiding in-person events because of concerns about protecting people’s health during the pandemic. However, he’s calling voters, doing press interviews and holding town halls online to highlight his commitment to the progressive policies he champions, like universal basic income and “Medicare for All.”
Meanwhile, McGrath is flooding the zone with advertising, holding telephone town halls and spending time in public talking with Kentuckians, although she isn’t hosting any campaign events because of the pandemic.
Here’s a look at the trio’s final push to win over voters.
Meeting voters, virtually or in person
About 100 people filled the parking lot in front of Highland Coffee Co. on Bardstown Road on Wednesday morning to see Booker, who grew up in Louisville’s West End.
Standing before the mostly masked crowd, Booker called them family, told them he loved them and asked for their help in rising up, demanding real, structural change and working together to end generational poverty.
“Poverty is a policy choice,” he told them. “We have some mountains that need to move, one of them being Mount McConnell.”
He emphasized how he has experienced the same hardships many other Kentuckians have, offering up a personal story about when he realized as a child that his mother wasn’t eating because there was only enough food for him.
“Working multiple jobs just so we can struggle,” he said. “It ain’t right.”
After his speech, Booker snapped photos with people who lined up to meet him.
The event was part of a “statewide tour” Booker planned for the final stretch before Election Day. Stops include Louisville, Glasgow, Bowling Green and other cities. On top of that, his campaign team is knocking on voters’ doors, as well.
It’s a far cry from how Booker and the other candidates handled the first weeks of the pandemic, when they stopped holding public events and canvassing neighborhoods and pivoted to connecting with people by phone and online.
However, Booker stressed the importance of this moment. “We want everyone to be safe while we do it, but we also know we can’t afford to stay home,” he said.
McGrath also is spending more time in public than she has in recent months.
She went to Frankfort on Wednesday to visit with Kentuckians who were waiting in an hours-long line to get help with their unemployment claims.
She said one woman told her she had to leave her job as a manager at a fast-food restaurant because she’s a single mom and her children’s day care closed, leaving her no other way to ensure they were taken care of while she worked.
“My feeling is: They need to have a better voice in Washington,” McGrath said.
Later that afternoon, she showed up at a rally union workers held in Louisville to urge the McConnell-led Senate to pass a relief package dubbed the HEROES Act.
She offered a few words of support as the event ended but mainly listened and spoke one-on-one with the people gathered outside the home of the Teamsters Local 89 union.
“Yeah, Amy!” one man yelled as she promised she’d keep working hard to get rid of McConnell.
McGrath said she’s going out to places where people already are but isn’t willing to host events that will attract crowds or send campaigners door to door because of the coronavirus.
“I mean, the last thing we want to do is be part of the problem with the pandemic, right?” she said. “So, it’s a balance.”
McGrath held telephone town halls this week, too. During one, a caller said she feared for her biracial grandchildren.
McGrath told her: “America was founded on this ideal, this promise, that everybody should be treated with dignity and respect. That everybody should be given a fair shot. And I think right now we, as Americans, have to acknowledge that we haven’t kept that promise … particularly for Black Americans.”
“We need to change the culture of policing in our country,” she continued. “For example, I know no police officer that believes that chokeholds (are) a tactic that we should use in this country. So to me, we should have banned that yesterday.”
Unlike Booker and McGrath, Broihier is maintaining a stricter policy of not attending events or doing other in-person campaigning, such as knocking on doors, because of his concerns about protecting the public’s health.
He made an exception for a meet and greet in downtown Louisville on Juneteenth, which Booker also attended. McGrath went to a Juneteenth event on Friday, too, in Somerset.
In Louisville that afternoon, Booker greeted the people gathered there with his fist in the air. “Happy Juneteenth, family,” he told them.
When it was Broihier’s turn, he told the crowd that police unions have a stranglehold on government that must be eradicated, which garnered some claps and cheers.
Apart from Friday’s event, Broihier and his team mainly have stuck to contacting voters online and through phone calls, text messages and virtual town halls.
During a town hall on health care Tuesday, he described how he — like many people — has made trade-offs because of a lack of affordable, accessible services.
He said he doesn’t have dental insurance right now and was wearing cheap “cheaters” from Walmart because he can’t afford to see an eye doctor. And he connected those experiences to why he supports a single-payer health care system.
“For me as a candidate, it’s not enough to just point at something and say, ‘This is terrible, something must be done,'” Broihier told The Courier Journal.
He stressed that he’s offering voters a detailed array of policies he believes would help solve some of the country’s top problems.
“I think it rings true with people,” he said.
Getting out the vote
All three candidates are focusing firepower on making sure people actually vote, especially since the pandemic has changed how this election works.
Broihier said contacting voters to make sure they know how they can vote and remember to send in their ballot is an “all-hands effort” now.
“Every single person on my team is doing it,” he explained. “Thankfully, most people I’ve talked to have already secured their mail-in ballots.”
McGrath has advocated for Kentuckians’ opportunities to vote to be expanded and set up a website, kentuckyvotes.com, that her team updates with the latest information on how people can vote in every county.
“Voting is a right, and we should be able to vote safely,” she said. “So, we’re using our resources to be able to help people to vote.”
Booker is in get-out-the-vote mode, too.
He said his team is working to arrange shuttles that can give voters a ride to Louisville’s sole polling place, the Kentucky Exposition Center, and reaching out to organizers across the state to see what they need.
“This is what we do,” he said.
Big money, big ads
The campaigns also are relying on advertising and interviews to reach voters.
McGrath, who has raised more than $40 million, is pouring over $3 million into ads during the last stretch of the primary.
She said the goal is to make sure people know her core message.
“And that is that I’m a Democrat and that I am somebody that’s going to work for you,” she said. “I am somebody that cares about health care. I am somebody that cares about equal justice for all … and that is going to be committed to doing the things that we need to do to move us in the right direction.”
Booker had only raised around $792,000 as of June 3, but his campaign manager, Colin Lauderdale, said Thursday that he brought in $2.4 million since June began. And that extra cash is helping the campaign compete on advertising.
McGrath and Booker both introduced ads this week about the recent protests against police brutality.
In hers, McGrath expressed dismay over the death of George Floyd — a 46-year-old Black man who died in May after a former police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes — and promised voters: “As your senator, I will stand up to any president who treats people as less than human.”
Booker criticized McGrath’s ad on social media and said it “is exploiting our pain.”
His own ad juxtaposed McGrath’s explanation during a debate that she didn’t attend the first few days of protests because she “had some family things going on” with footage of Booker walking with protesters in Louisville.
McGrath recently said on Twitter that she later attended a vigil for Breonna Taylor in Lexington as well as an interfaith gathering in Louisville.
Broihier, who had raised over $494,000 as of June 3, said his team took a targeted, data-driven approach to advertising.
“No one’s got Amy McGrath money except for Amy McGrath, so we decided as a campaign the best time to spend the money was in the last month,” he said. “We are not leaving a dollar unspent.”
All the candidates have been doing press interviews, but Broihier — the former editor of a weekly newspaper — has especially emphasized the importance he places on talking to local news outlets across the state.
Social media is also part of his and the other candidates’ toolboxes, with Broihier promoting videos and posts that highlight his endorsement by famed Kentucky author, farmer and environmental activist Wendell Berry and his progressive policy positions.
Attracting national attention
McConnell’s shadow is ever-present in this primary — and the nationwide impact of the power he wields in the Senate has put this election on the radar for a lot of people who don’t live in the Bluegrass State.
Money has flowed into the race not only from Kentuckians but also from out-of-state residents — especially to McGrath, the most prolific fundraiser.
Congressional superstars in Washington, D.C., have taken an interest, too.
McGrath got a vote of confidence last week from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who said: “I believe that she’ll win her primary, and I believe that she’ll give McConnell a run for his money.”
But Booker has won endorsements from big names too, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and — last week — Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, both of Massachusetts.
Broihier, who is backed by former 2020 Democratic presidential candidates Andrew Yang and Marianne Williamson, offered a critical take on his opponents’ endorsements.
“I’m not Chuck Schumer’s candidate. I’m not Bernie Sanders’ candidate. I’m Kentucky’s candidate,” he said Thursday on Twitter. “Progressive. Fearless. All yours.”
McConnell’s recent legacy is inextricable from that of President Donald Trump, whom he has worked with to confirm a record number of federal judges. And in a presidential election year, Trump is never far from voters’ minds.
Booker and Broihier have slammed McGrath as a “pro-Trump” Democrat, while she has tried to keep the focus on McConnell in a state where the president won big in 2016.
However, McGrath — whom McConnell’s re-election campaign has nicknamed “Extreme Amy McGrath” and painted as a far-left Democrat — pushed back against the idea that she’s pro-Trump. “I’m tired of the labels,” she said Wednesday.
“If people look at who I am they’re going to see somebody who served her country. They’re going to see somebody who will work with anyone to do what is right for Kentucky. To do what is right by workers,” she explained. “And at the same time, I’ll have the guts to stand up to anyone when it comes to Kentucky or when it comes to the Constitution of the United States that I swore to defend six times in my life.”
Whether Kentucky Democrats agree — and think she has a better chance of beating McConnell than Booker or Broihier — is up for a final vote on Tuesday.