Room for a Moderate Democrat in 2022 U.S. Senate Primary

The 2022 Democratic primary for United States Senate kicked off last week with a video from Louisville progressive Charles Booker, but a look at how his last run played out leaves a lot of room for a moderate candidate. 

Booker caught fire late in the 2020 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate against a moderate, better-financed candidate in Amy McGrath, but Booker under-performed in urban centers that should have been his bread-and-butter barrier against McGrath’s rural popularity. 

McGrath bested Booker by a slim 15,000 vote margin, but a look at the numbers shows two counties in particular that could have swung the race – Fayette, and Jefferson. McGrath and Booker essentially split the vote in Fayette, the second-largest county in the state, with McGrath gathering 24,005 raw votes to Booker’s 27,520 votes. 

Booker also needed to better perform in Jefferson County where he bested McGrath by just 30,000 votes in his home county. Strategists in statewide elections seek to garner 60 percent of the vote in Jefferson County as a buffer against the conservative rural rest of the state. 

McGrath won the rest of Kentucky in the primary, with the exception of three counties – Boyle, Christian, and Warren.

With that much space left on the fringes, a solid path exists for a moderate Democrat in the 2022 U.S. Senate primary. There have been several potential candidates mentioned in the rumor mill, including Transportation Cabinet Secretary Jim Gray and Rocky Adkins, a senior advisor to Andy Beshear.  

Gray, the former Mayor of Lexington, makes a lot of sense in a race like this. Gray essentially takes the 6thCongressional District in Fayette County away from Booker, and has the moderate appeal compared to Booker, even though Gray is the first openly gay Mayor of Lexington. Gray ran six years ago against U.S. Senator Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, during a presidential election cycle that minted President Donald Trump and crushed Democrats across the country. Paul defeated Gray by 14.5 percent in the statewide General Election. 

Rocky Adkins, the former longtime House Democratic Floor Leader, has the rural appeal coming from Eastern Kentucky. There are new rumors floating that Adkins is looking hard at the 5th District Congressional seat, currently held by U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset. At 83-years old, and serving in Congress since 1981, Rogers is likely to retire in the near future opening a long-held seat likely to draw numerous candidates. 

The 2022 race for U.S. Senate will have a lot of variables that differ from the 2020 cycle. First and foremost, the 2022 cycle is a midterm, which bring out less voters than presidential cycles. 

Things will also shift post-pandemic – the primary should be held May 17, 2022, and there will be fewer absentee and early votes in the primary, as well as all the precincts open for in-person voting.

If Booker is going to defend against other potential top-tier Democratic challengers, he’s going to need to focus his campaign in the urban core and truly figure out how to appeal to suburban and rural Democrats in those areas that he might have turned off with some of his anti-police rhetoric. 

No matter who emerges from the Democratic primary, the General Election is an incredibly different monster in Kentucky and a longshot in a state that appears solidly Republican at the federal level.