Likely Senate contest in Kentucky pits ideological opposites

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — U.S. Sen. Rand Paul rarely targets his likely Democratic challenger by name, but the Republican's campaign attacks in Kentucky are unmistakably aimed at Charles Booker's agenda — in what's shaping up as a populist-themed battle featuring starkly different ideas to win the people over.

In his pursuit of a third Senate term, Paul projects a national voice for a libertarian-leaning philosophy based on limited government and restrained spending. Booker, his ideological opposite, promotes a New Deal-style economic platform. Booker is the clear frontrunner on the Democratic side in the Bluegrass State's primary election next Tuesday.

Paul drew five little-known Republican challengers, while Booker has three primary opponents. Both are campaigning with an eye on the general election in a state that has veered sharply toward the GOP. In recent years, Democrats running statewide have struggled to remain competitive in Kentucky, with one notable exception: Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who narrowly unseated a Republican incumbent in 2019, remains popular ahead of his 2023 reelection run.

Paul, who ran for the White House in 2016, has amassed a huge fundraising advantage and is heavily favored to win reelection in November. Kentucky has not elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since Wendell Ford in 1992.

But sparks could fly in a matchup between two candidates not known for toning down their views.

Booker, a Black former state lawmaker, insists he can reverse his party's sagging fortunes after a succession of Senate losses by more moderate Democrats. In 2020, Booker gained attention for his racial and economic justice message 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.

Back with the same agenda in 2022, Booker offers up a progressive platform that he’s dubbed the Kentucky New Deal. He says social programs like Medicare for All and a basic universal income would uplift cross sections of Kentuckians — a “hood to the holler” message meant to resonate from poor urban neighborhoods to struggling Appalachian towns.

“I’m running a campaign about bringing us together across the divides,” Booker told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “And addressing poverty, ensuring true community safety and making sure that we can live a meaningful life focused on love and humanity.”

For Paul, such sweeping social proposals are prime examples of an overly expansive federal government that he's warned against since his first Senate run. Paul, an ardent free-market advocate, has bashed socialism for years, vowing to fight it “with every fiber of my being.”

“The allure of something for nothing is not new," Paul said at a recent campaign rally. "Most of us instinctively know that nothing really in life is free. That you have to work hard. But there are people among us ... who succumb to this sort of siren call. This idea that there is something out there that you don’t have to work for. That somehow we can get something for free.”

Booker said there's nothing radical about making sure everyone has quality health care. He accuses the senator of “using dog whistles” on economic and criminal justice issues to try to tear him down.

First elected in the tea party-driven wave of 2010, Paul touted his less-intrusive philosophy in denouncing what he saw as government overreach in response to COVID-19. Paul has waged memorable clashes with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, over the government’s coronavirus policies and the origins of the virus that caused the global pandemic, and has used those disputes to raise campaign contributions.

Paul, long a self-styled outsider fighting the establishment, could be on the verge of acquiring more Senate power. He says he’s in line to assume a committee chairmanship if the GOP wins Senate control after the November election. The Senate currently has a 50-50 split, but Democrats have the slim edge because Vice President Kamala Harris is a tie-breaking vote.

He vows to wage a vigorous review into the origins of COVID-19 if he lands the chairmanship.

“When we take over in November, I will be chairman of a committee and I will have subpoena power,” Paul said. “And we will get to the bottom of where this virus came from.”

During a recent appearance on Kentucky Educational Television, Booker tried tapping into the populist wave stirred by Republican Donald Trump, saying the former president “spoke to some realities that we cannot ignore when he said that the system is broken for a lot of us across Kentucky.”

“Now when he said he was going to make it better, he was exploiting fears, he was weaponizing pain," Booker added.

Republicans dismiss Booker's hopes of winning over Trump supporters.

Paul already has the ex-president's endorsement — currently seen as the biggest prize in Kentucky politics. Trump announced his support for Paul's reelection last year, saying the senator “fights against the Swamp in Washington.” Paul's support for a more restrained foreign policy helped him forge a close relationship with Trump, who bested him for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.

It leaves Democrats positioned as longshots in yet another Senate race in Kentucky — but maybe Booker can take comfort from the fact that an 80-1 shot just won the Kentucky Derby.