Police protests upend Democratic Senate contest in Kentucky

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HOLD FOR STORY- In this June 17, 2020 photo U.S. Senate candidate Charles Booker shakes hands with protestors in Louisville, KY. Booker is running against Amy Grath for the senate democratic nomination. (Alton Strupp/Louisville Courier Journal via AP)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – For months, Charles Booker languished in the shadows, talking about racial and economic justice in a long shot bid to take on Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader of the U.S. Senate. Then came a national eruption over the deaths of Black Americans in encounters with police.

Now, Booker's bid for the Democratic Senate nomination from the left wing of Kentucky politics is on the rise, creating an unexpectedly strong challenge in Tuesday's primary to the party-backed favorite, former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath.

Booker has been helped by the endorsement of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and the state's two largest newspapers. It's created a sense of momentum and led to a surge in fundraising, money that Booker has used to slam McGrath, the long-time front-runner, in TV ads. It also has added a measure of uncertainty to the script in Democrats’ uphill efforts to topple McConnell, who is seeking his seventh term.

“Over the past couple of weeks, you all have seen a shift,” Booker, a freshman state lawmaker, said at a rally this past week in his hometown of Louisville. “There is something in the atmosphere. Something is really going on here. We all are a part of history.”

Booker, 35, found the spotlight during the outbreak of protests against police, fueled in part by the death of Breonna Taylor, a Black EMT shot by Louisville narcotics detectives who knocked down her front door but found no drugs. Booker marched with protesters and felt the sting of tear gas. His voice turned raspy from speaking so much.

“To see people mourning in the streets and crying out — demanding humanity, just demanding justice for everybody — it lit a spark,” Booker said.

Republicans, too, seem to sense a moment of political change. McConnell, the Senate majority leader, mentions Taylor almost daily and has embraced legislation intended to overhaul police practices.

“We’re still wrestling with America’s original sin,” McConnell told reporters last week.