Kentucky Politics

Democrats running to topple Mitch McConnell from the U.S. Senate hope the crisis ushered in by the coronavirus has underscored the need to beef up the country’s social safety net.

And McConnell has embraced his role negotiating the massive coronavirus relief packages that have passed out of Congress, though he wants future efforts to wait until the country’s economy opens back up.

Just as it has reshaped much of the state and nation, the pandemic has also altered political campaigning. Candidates can no longer take the usual steps — organizing door-to-door canvassing and traveling across the state to meet potential supporters. Above all, there can be no shaking hands or kissing babies.

Instead, they’ve shifted their shops to operate remotely.

Retired Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath has started a podcast and is dedicating some campaign staff and volunteers to help people get groceries and household supplies. Mike Broihier, a farmer who’s also a retired Marine lieutenant colonel, has launched a nightly show that airs from his farm, Chicken Bristle Live.

Louisville state Rep. Charles Booker has expanded his phone banking efforts, getting volunteers to reach out to voters across the state from their homes.

“I think this additional time is going to be important for folks like me who wanted everyone to be engaged and touched,” Booker said.

“A lot of us get ignored anyway. A whole lot of communities never get spoken to, so we’re working to change that.”

Kentucky’s primary elections will take place on June 23 after Gov. Andy Beshear issued an executive order delaying them by the maximum-allowed 35 days.

McGrath said the pandemic has emphasized the need to elect people who want to fix the health care system. She also accused McConnell and President Donald Trump of not reacting quickly enough to the pandemic.

“We entrusted him with the knowledge from the intelligence communities and from our public officials at the highest levels to protect us. He didn’t say a thing about it until the stock market crashes, it shows you his priorities,” McGrath said.

McGrath said that once the country gets through the pandemic, it needs to investigate what went wrong with the national response, comparing it to the 9/11 commission.

“I think we need to do something like that for this. Because clearly the signs were there that this was a threat and there were lots of failures here,” McGrath said.

McConnell has played a key role in shaping the federal government’s coronavirus relief efforts, including the $2 trillion package that passed out of Congress last month promising checks for individuals, businesses, healthcare providers and states struggling with the pandemic.

In recent weeks, McConnell’s campaign has produced commercials touting the federal package and his work with Democratic leaders, including Gov. Beshear, during the pandemic.

His moves have put him at odds with some other Republicans in the Senate, including Kentucky’s junior Sen. Rand Paul, who has criticized the relief packages for adding to the national debt.

Kate Cooksey, press secretary for McConnell’s reelection campaign, said that the pandemic is a “big change for everybody.”

“When you look at it from that standpoint, that we are in an unprecedented time, making sure that people have resources to economically heal is incredibly important,” Cooskey said.

After the Senate passed a $484 billion package on Wednesday to provide more aid to small businesses and hospitals, McConnell said that the Senate would be proceeding “cautiously” with future coronavirus relief bills.

“I think it’s also time to begin to think about the amount of debt that we’re adding to our country and the future impact of that,” McConnell told reporters on Wednesday.

McGrath said that McConnell only pushed for the package because it was politically expedient.

“By and large there’s a lot of good in the packages that have been passed. Going forward we need to focus more on workers as opposed to corporations,” McGrath said.

The pandemic hasn’t slowed down the campaign fundraising juggernauts built by McGrath and McConnell. McGrath pulled in $12.8 million in the first quarter of the year, outpacing McConnell’s $7.5 million. McGrath currently has $14.7 million on hand and McConnell has $14.9 million.

Meanwhile Booker raised $315,431 since the beginning of the year and has $70,025 on hand and Broihier raised $152,426 with $76,536 on hand.

But Booker and Broihier say that the pandemic has underscored the need for progressive proposals like Medicare For All and Universal Basic Income.

Broihier said that the current system has failed its first stress test.

“All of the sudden, people are saying this whole thing would look much different if we had a universal basic income and we had a single payer healthcare system that actually worked for everybody,” Broihier said.

Broihier says that the only reason McConnell supported the federal coronavirus relief package was to “save his political hide” and that the federal government failed citizens by not taking action sooner.

“Even on the day to day basis, the government is struggling to make right decisions. Because they’ve got their eye on the wrong ball. They’ve got their eye on the stock market, the economy, instead of human lives,” Broihier said.

Booker said that the pandemic has shown that the progressive policies he’s pushing for are not radical.

“We’ve been dealing with homelessness. I’ve had to ration insulin, I’ve seen poverty be generational. It’s really helped to shine light on what we already knew and it’s helped us build a better coalition for issues that directly affect Kentuckians,” Booker said.

McGrath, Booker and Broihier expressed hopes that Gov. Beshear would expand mail-in voting. The legislature recently gave Beshear the power to do so, though Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams would have to sign off on it.

In all, there are eight Republicans and ten Democrats running for the seat this year.

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