Kentucky Politics

Hearkening to a time when Democrats were overwhelmingly powerful in Kentucky, Charles Booker is reaching back nearly a century for his new campaign initiative, saying the state needs a “Kentucky New Deal” to lift people out of poverty, build infrastructure and provide universal health coverage.

Booker, a former Democratic state representative, is trying to unseat Kentucky’s junior Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul at the ballot box next year. He ran for Senate last year as well, narrowly losing his party’s nomination to retired Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath.

And just as McGrath invoked former President Donald Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp”—to the chagrin of some Democrats in Kentucky—in a recent interview, Booker said Trump was right about the government not working for most people.

“This is really our chance to do the work that Donald Trump called out when he said that we need to Make America Great Again. We know he was exploiting fears and frustrations, but when he called out that the system was broken, it is for a lot of us across Kentucky,” Booker said.

Booker’s “Kentucky New Deal” doesn’t contain super-specific policies, but broadly, he says he wants to end poverty, provide quality health care, fix crumbling infrastructure and address the loss of jobs caused by the decline of the coal industry.

The original New Deal, enacted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a Democratic-controlled Congress, is credited with helping dig the country out of the Great Depression with massive public works projects, social programs and financial reforms.

The impact of the program can still be seen across Kentucky in buildings, bridges, murals, forests and dams that provided hydroelectric power to rural parts of the state.

And though the New Deal helped solidify Democrats’ control of Kentucky politics for the rest of the 20th Century, Republicans have decisively taken the reins in the state in recent years. The last time Kentucky sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate was Wendell Ford in 1992, and the last time the state voted for a Democratic presidential candidate was Bill Clinton in 1996.

Booker says Democrats need to get back to what made the party popular.

“There was a promise made within the spirit of the New Deal that said we would finally end poverty. And in a lot of ways, that promise has been undermined by people like Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell who really don’t care if we live or die,” Booker said.

Booker is the only candidate who has formally filed to run for Senate next year, though Paul says he will run and has already launched his reelection campaign. Paul also hasn’t closed the door on running for president in 2024. Over the summer he said he was waiting to see whether former President Donald Trump runs.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.