Kentucky Politics

Senate Democratic candidates seeking to unseat Majority Leader Mitch McConnell held their first primary debate of the season Thursday night in Northern Kentucky.

Military veterans Amy McGrath and Mike Broihier, state Rep. Charles Booker and mental health counselor Jimmy Ausbrooks sought to distinguish themselves and explain why they would be the best candidate to defeat McConnell in the general election in November.

Kentucky Public Radio Capitol Bureau Chief Ryland Barton moderated the debate held by Indivisible Northern Kentucky at the Southgate House Revival in Newport, Kentucky. Barton raised questions on a variety of topics including climate change, foreign affairs and health care.

Health care, McGrath said, was the number one issue she heard about while traveling around the state.  As a career military officer, McGrath said she would support a public option similar to what she has as a veteran.

“A public option is the idea you could buy an Uncle Sam plan on the exchanges already,” she said. “I’m a veteran, I’m a military retiree, my entire family pays for a government plan.”

Booker, a Type 1 diabetic, said he believes health care should be universal and has already helped pass legislation at the state level to make insulin more affordable in Kentucky.

Broihier said he would like to eventually move to single payer system, but believes the first step would be to expand the Affordable Care Act and offer a public option.

Ausbrooks called healthcare a human right, but deferred on a specific policy proposal.

All four candidates agreed that climate change is a threat that must be managed as a society. Broihier spoke about the need to support miners with a just transition to a green economy.

McGrath called global warming a national security concern. Her plan to transition the state’s economy involves tackling other state issues including infrastructure, workforce education and the opioid crisis.

Booker touted an endorsement from the youth environmental advocacy group the Sunrise Movement. He said Kentucky needs its own new deal to uphold environmental justice, create more jobs and build a better future.

“I say we need a Kentucky new deal because all of the negative pressure points of environmental injustice, structural racism and a future that’s being taken from us, fall right in our laps,” he said.

On rural support, Booker was the only candidate to say he didn’t live in a rural area. Instead he sought to highlight the similarities between his own impoverished youth in the inner city and those of rural Kentucky.

Broihier touted his credentials as a farmer, educator, military veteran and journalist who has learned how to communicate progressive ideals to his rural neighbors.

When it came to foreign policy, Broihier and McGrath laid out the most detailed plans. McGrath said Congress should do more to restrain the executive branch in authorizing the use of military force. Broihier said the U.S. never should have been involved in Iraq, and needs to deal with threats from Pakistan if it wants to leave Afghanistan.

As a mental health counselor that makes less than $30,000 a year with $180,000 in student debt, Ausbrooks said he’s be the candidate to support student loan forgiveness. Booker agreed with Ausbrooks, calling student debt “criminal” and saying he doesn’t think he’d ever be able to pay off his own student debt.

In closing arguments, Booker said he is the candidate to fight against inter-generational poverty and structural racism while supporting medicare for all. He said he is not only the candidate to beat McConnell, but the candidate invested in building a better future.

Ausbrooks said he thinks anyone in the audience could do a better job than McConnell but offered himself as the candidate that will “say what you mean and mean what you say.”

“That’s why I got into this race, I was tired of being tired of people not standing up for people like me,” he said.

McGrath said she’s the candidate that will lower health care costs, tackle climate change and comprehensive immigration reform.

Broihier said that as a retired Marine officer, he swore an oath to protect and defend the constitution and touted himself as the only person on stage appearing as an educator, veteran and farmer.

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.