By BRUCE SCHREINER and PIPER HUDSPETH BLACKBURN – Associated Press
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — U.S. Sen. Rand Paul rarely targets his likely Democratic challenger by name, but Republican campaign attacks in Kentucky are undoubtedly targeting Charles Booker’s agenda — in what’s to come as a populist-themed battle with radically different characters ideas to win people over.
In his pursuit of a third term in the Senate, Paul projects a national voice for a libertarian-leaning philosophy based on limited government and restrained spending. Booker, its ideological opposite, promotes a New Deal-style economic platform. Booker is the clear favorite on the Democratic side in the Bluegrass State primary election next Tuesday.
Paul has drawn five little-known Republican challengers, while Booker has three main opponents. The two are campaigning for the general election in a state that has veered heavily toward the GOP. In recent years, statewide Democrats have struggled to stay competitive in Kentucky, with one notable exception: Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who narrowly ousted a Republican incumbent in 2019, remains popular before his re-election in 2023.
Paul, who ran for the White House in 2016, has built up a massive fundraising advantage and is heavily favored for re-election in November. Kentucky has not elected a Democrat to the US Senate since Wendell Ford in 1992.
But sparks could fly in a clash between two candidates who aren’t known for toning down their opinions.
Booker, a former black state lawmaker, insists he can reverse his party’s sagging fortunes after a string of Senate defeats by more moderate Democrats. In 2020, Booker drew attention for his message of racial and economic justice amid nationwide protests over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans in encounters with police. Booker barely lost the Democratic Senate primary that year to an establishment-backed rival.
Returning with the same program in 2022, Booker is offering a progressive platform he has dubbed the Kentucky New Deal. He says social programs like Medicare for All and a Universal Basic Income would uplift cross-sections of Kentuckians — a “screaming hood” message meant to resonate from poor urban neighborhoods to struggling Appalachian towns.
“I’m leading a campaign to bring us together across divides,” Booker told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “And fight poverty, provide true community safety, and ensure that we can live meaningful lives of love and humanity.”
For Paul, such sweeping social proposals are prime examples of the overly expansive federal government he’s been warned about since his first Senate race. Paul, a staunch defender of the free market, criticized socialism for years, vowing to fight it “with every fiber of my being.”
“The lure of something for nothing is nothing new,” Paul said at a recent campaign rally. “Most of us instinctively know that nothing really in life is free. It takes hard work. But there are people among us…who succumb to that kind of siren call. This idea that there’s something out there that you don’t have to work for, that somehow we can get something for free.
Booker said there’s nothing drastic about making sure everyone has quality health care. He accuses the senator of “using dog whistles” on economic and criminal justice issues in an attempt to tear him down.
First elected in the tea party wave of 2010, Paul touted his less intrusive philosophy as he spoke out against what he saw as government overreach in response to COVID-19. Paul had memorable clashes with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, over the government’s coronavirus policies and the origins of the virus that caused the global pandemic, and used those disputes to increase campaign contributions.
Paul, long a self-styled outsider fighting the establishment, may be on the verge of gaining more power in the Senate. He says he’s in line to assume committee chairman if the GOP wins control of the Senate after the November election. The Senate currently has a 50-50 split, but Democrats have a slim advantage as Vice President Kamala Harris is a deciding vote.
He promises to lead a vigorous examination of the origins of COVID-19 if he wins the presidency.
“When we take over in November, I will be chairman of a committee and will have the power to subpoena,” Paul said. “And we’re going to find out where this virus came from.”
During a recent appearance on Kentucky Educational Television, Booker tried to tap into the populist wave sparked by Republican Donald Trump, saying the former president “spoke about some realities that we cannot ignore when he said the system was down for many of us across Kentucky.”
“Now when he said he was going to make things better, he was exploiting fears, he was weaponizing pain,” Booker added.
Republicans reject Booker’s hopes of winning over Trump supporters.
Paul already has the ex-president’s endorsement — currently considered Kentucky politics’ biggest prize. Trump announced his support for Paul’s re-election last year, saying the senator is “fighting the swamp in Washington.” Paul’s support for a more restrained foreign policy helped him forge a close relationship with Trump, who beat him for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.
That leaves Democrats positioned as longshots in another Senate race in Kentucky — but perhaps Booker can take solace in the fact that an 80-1 shot just won the Kentucky Derby.
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