While most of the media attention is understandably focused on Donald Trump right now, there's another November election that is just as, if not more, important: The battle for the Kentucky Senate seat currently held by Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell is just as much of a comic book villain as Trump, if less showy about it, and has spent his time in the top seat carefully dismantling democracy and packing the federal courts with conservative judges, so that Republicans never have to worry about losing again, even as growing majorities of Americans reject their ideology.
Getting rid of McConnell won't reverse the damage, but it could stop the bleeding. Is it even likely? And if so, who is best positioned to do it?
Republican Governor Matt Bevin's defeat last November by Andy Beshear, whose coronavirus pandemic briefings have become something of a daily fireside chat ritual for Kentuckians, was hailed by some as proof of McConnell's vulnerability. But many also noted that Bevin's defeat was an outlier — the absurdly combative governor fought with his own party as well as with Democrats, and his belligerence against public school educators united Kentuckians across party lines to defeat him at the polls — and shouldn't be interpreted as a bellwether event.
Salon interviewed the three main Democratic primary candidates to get a better idea of who is best situated to unseat the man who is doing more than anyone to gut American democracy. Two of the candidates are running on progressive platforms; two are retired high-ranking combat veterans; one lost a campaign to unseat another Kentucky Republican in 2018; only one has won an election in Kentucky; and only one is endorsed by New Age guru, author and former presidential candidate Marianne Williamson.
Which candidate will go up against McConnell in November? Kentucky Democrats have until June 23 to decide.
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The Progressive Farmer: Mike Broihier
Mike Broihier, a Kentucky farmer and retired lieutenant colonel with the Marines, is running on a progressive platform that includes Medicare for All and the universal basic income program proposed by former presidential candidate Andrew Yang. He has also been endorsed by New Age guru Marianne Williamson, who joined him in the interview with Salon.
Why are you running to be the Democratic challenger to Mitch McConnell?
Broihier: Over the last couple years it became more and more evident to me that Trump is just the symptom and McConnell is the problem. People like him are the problem. I looked at my resume and said, you know, as a Kentucky farmer, as someone who has taught at UC Berkeley and taught substitute teaching at the local public schools, and as a retired combat veteran, no one has ever run against Mitch McConnell like me before. We've been running Republican-lite against McConnell for 35 years and gotten creamed every time.
Marianne, why did you endorse Mike in this particular primary race?
Williamson: Well, obviously, defeating Mitch McConnell, that's second in importance only to defeating Donald Trump. I think that Mike stands the best chance to do that, not only because of his strict and uncompromising adherence to those traditional Democratic values, but also because I understand the argument about rural versus urban Kentucky. Just relying on [the cities of] Lexington and Louisville is obviously a failed strategy.
I want to ask both of you, Mike and Marianne, how do you think that Marianne's endorsement is going to help in winning over those rural Kentucky voters?
Williamson: I've talked about the rural voters in terms of my support for Mike. In terms of any possible help my endorsement might have for him, that would be within Louisville and Lexington because I think of my own audience, in a place like Kentucky, as more urban. I don't claim to have any particular connection to the farmers of Kentucky or to the rural communities there. I was just pointing out that I think he does.
Broihier: Everything that Marianne says makes a lot of sense. On the other hand, she does have great stature. She has a lot of respect and she has a lot of followers. When you get an endorsement from someone of the stature of Marianne that says no, there is a race in Kentucky and there are better choices, we do not have to go with who the party directs us to, it really, really means a lot.
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The Progressive State Rep. from Louisville: Charles Booker
Charles Booker is a state representative in Kentucky, and also running on Medicare for All, universal basic income and the Green New Deal. He's been endorsed by the Sunrise Movement for his positions on climate change.
Why, of the three major primary candidates vying for the nomination, do you think you're the one that can beat Mitch McConnell in November?
Booker: I am the only person running that has actually won an election in Kentucky and worked across Kentucky building coalitions, the same type that we have to build now to actually not only beat Mitch McConnell but really transform our future.
Louisville's still one of the most segregated cities in the country, and so having to deal with structural racism in a very personal level. [In] my family, my grandad fought for desegregation. I've had family members lynched, enslaved in Kentucky. And having worked all across the commonwealth in rural communities and Appalachia alike, it's really given me the ability to speak across seeming divides and build coalitions of folks regardless of party.
And we need people that have lived the struggle, that are living it. That can talk about issues that regular people face regardless of where they're from in Kentucky. And that's my story and that's what I've been doing as a legislator.
Amy McGrath is running a more moderate campaign. Why are you moving in a more progressive direction?
Booker: My platform, it's not that I chose it. This is really a matter of survival in listening to the people of Kentucky. I speak about any generational poverty because that's where I come from. Neither one of my parents graduated high school; my grandmother didn't either. I was on food stamps and free lunch. I'm a type one diabetic. I've had to ration my insulin because we couldn't afford it. I nearly died twice from that. And now I'm trying to pay student debts that are criminal that I don't expect to ever pay off, and hopefully not hand this debt down to my two daughters. And so when I say that we need Medicare For All, [that] no one should die because they don't have money in their pocket, it's because I literally nearly died because I didn't have money in my pocket.
How do you think that this coronavirus crisis is going to impact the election and specifically your campaign?
Booker: A lot of that people-powered energy, you can't replace when you can't physically be in front of someone. But we're leaning into what needed to be done anyway. Breaking down barriers so that folks can get involved right where they are, even at home. Of course I'm the youngest person running, so social media and using platforms to organize with relational organizing, it's stuff I was already wanting to do because of my work in other fields with community organizing.
The one thing that you'll hear from me that you won't hear much from any of the others is that I don't give a damn about Mitch McConnell. This is about the people of Kentucky. Yeah, we need to beat him because he's been hurting us for my entire life. He was elected two weeks after I was born. But this really is about us taking our future back, and that's what we're going to do.
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The Well-Funded Moderate: Amy McGrath
Amy McGrath lost her congressional bid in 2018. But her profile as a former fighter pilot for the Marines (like Broihier, she's a retired lieutenant colonel) and as a more moderate Democrat than her opponents, has led to high hopes she can beat McConnell in 2020 — hopes that have helped her build a nearly $30 million war chest. Stuck at home with her kids due to the coronavirus, McGrath answered Salon's questions by email.
Why do you think you're the best candidate in the primary to beat Mitch McConnell in the fall?
McGrath: We need a new generation of leaders who can put their country over their political party to do what's right for Kentucky and are not bought off by special interests. I spent my entire adult life serving my country while Mitch McConnell has spent 35 years creating the Washington Swamp. I will give everyday Kentuckians a voice in Washington — not just special interests or the wealthiest 1%. I'm the only candidate who has built a team to take him on toe to toe.
You've been criticized as too moderate in an era when the Democratic party is moving to the left. Do you agree with this view and why or why not?
McGrath: Like so many Americans, I am tired of the labeling and partisanship. It's not about left or right, red or blue. It's about doing what is right for Kentucky. I am fighting for affordable and accessible health care. I am fighting for good jobs that pay a living wage, and for 21-century infrastructure so badly needed in Kentucky. I am fighting to stop the corruption in Washington that was created by Mitch McConnell. We need leaders who are willing to reach across the aisle to get these things done.
The coronavirus is incredibly disruptive to everyone's lives — and to the campaigns. How do you think it will affect your run for the Senate?
McGrath: Right now my campaign is focused on doing our part to help during these tough times. We launched Commonwealth, Common Health, an initiative that matches volunteers with vulnerable Kentuckians who need assistance accessing household items. We also established a food bank relief fund to support food banks across the state, many of which are struggling to keep up with skyrocketing needs in their communities. We have raised almost $50,000 to distribute to Kentucky food banks.
In addition to Commonwealth, Common Health, we are finding ways to connect with voters virtually while still social distancing. I meet virtually with regional councils and different constituency groups, such as our Veterans Council, to discuss what issues are important to them in their communities.
How do you plan on working with Joe Biden if you and he both win in November?
McGrath: I will work with any president — or stand up to any president — regardless of political party, to do what is best for Kentucky.