When it comes to Booker vs Paul, can nice guys finish first?

“Kentucky is not a ‘red state,’” a recent fund-raising email from CharlesBooker.org starts off.  

We called that a “grabber lede” when I was a daily newspaper reporter. 

The claim is based on voter registration totals. Democrats outnumber Republicans by 82,250, according to the email.

Even so, a slew of registered Democrats regularly vote Republican. Last November, Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell and all five of the state’s GOP congressmen won big again. Republicans added to their super-majorities in the state House and Senate, to boot.

The Republican Red tide in the Bluegrass State shows no signs of ebbing. That’s probably why Booker, a former state representative from Louisville, is the only Democrat who is publicly mulling a challenge to Sen. Rand Paul next year.

The filing deadline isn’t until January. So Booker may get some company in his party’s primary.

“More people stay home than vote in the midterms”

The email also says that Kentucky is “a state where more people stay home than vote in the midterms” and a state “where a whole lot of people have not been heard in a heck of a long time.”

According to the email, Booker, the “young, progressive leader who’s lived the struggles other politicians just talk about” is winning “support from the hood to the holler,” attracting “people from all walks of life. Teachers, coal miners, and nurses. Black, white, and brown folks.”

A Booker-Paul matchup would be historic, but not only because Booker is African American and Kentucky’s never had a Black senator, or congressman. Booker v. Paul would provide voters one of the clearest choices between Democratic and Republican senate candidates in years.

The clearest choice in years

Paul and Booker differ profoundly, in politics and personalities.  

  • Booker is a pro-union liberal and proud of it. He thinks the government has a responsibility to help people who need help.
  • Paul is a Trump-tilting anti-union reactionary who believes the government has no business promoting the general welfare, especially for our fellow citizens the Good Book calls “the least” among us. 

Like Trump, Paul is a bullying demagogue given to slandering opponents. Both traffic in misleading statements and flat lies.

Recently, Paul called Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical advisor and a favorite punching bag for the Republican right, “Mr. Little Dictator.” Paul said Fauci “probably has the highest IQ for someone who actually acts like an ignoramus every day of the week.”

Paul, like McConnell, relishes slamming as “socialists” Democrats like Booker who dare suggest that the government’s job one isn’t enriching the already rich while leaving poor people to fend for themselves.

Nice guys finish … first?

Booker skips the ad hominem attacks.

“Nice guys finish last,” harrumphed Hall of Fame baseball player-coach-manager Leo “The Lip” Durocher. Booker’s niceness earned him at least one vote in last year’s Democratic senatorial primary, which he lost to Amy McGrath, whom McConnell beat in the general election.

“I took my sister to meet Charles Booker at an event,” said Booker fan Judy Tuggle, a Mayfield Democratic activist. “She was going to vote for McGrath in the primary. But he was so friendly, so honest and so sincere that she voted for him—and, of course, McGrath in November.”

Republicans might shrug off Booker’s likeability as a trait easily overcome by their guy’s sure to be amply filled campaign war chest, his fealty to Trump in one of the most Trumpian of states and the inherent power of incumbency. 

Okay, history really doesn’t repeat itself. But the past is filled with interesting and sometimes instructive parallels with the present. 

Paul will be up for a third term in 2022. Sen. Charles Percy, R-Ill., was going for a fourth in 1984, also a presidential election year. Percy had piles of cash and the endorsement of Ronald Reagan, the proto-Trump, who was cruising toward a second term. 

As expected, Reagan won the Land of Lincoln and the election. But Democrat Paul Simon unseated Percy.

Going on 13 years later, Simon was out of the Senate and heading the Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. He drove down to give a speech at Paducah Community College, now West Kentucky Community and Technical College, where I taught history for two dozen years.

Simon, from Makanda, had been a lieutenant governor and four term congressman from deep southern Illinois before he took on Percy. I had written about Congressman Simon when I was a Paducah Sun-Democrat and Paducah Sun feature writer and columnist. So when the college asked me to escort him to dinner and introduce him before his speech, I jumped at the chance. 

Over a meal with our wives at Ruby Tuesday’s, I asked Simon, who sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988, how he beat Percy. “If people like you, they’ll vote for you,” he smiled and replied in his famous deep baritone voice.

He recalled the time he was campaigning door-to-door in a Republican suburb in Chicago. “A man came up to me and said, ‘Congressman Simon, I can’t think of anything you and I agree on, but I’m going to vote for you because I like you.’”

I suspect Tuggle’s sister isn’t the only Kentuckian who Booker has won over via friendliness, honesty and sincerity. But he’ll have to charm a lot more voters to turn petulant Paul into a Percy.

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Berry Craig of Arlington, Ky., is a professor emeritus of history at West Kentucky Community College in Paducah and an author of seven books and co-author of two more, all on Kentucky history. His latest book is Kentuckians and Pearl Harbor: Stories from the Day of Infamy, published last fall by South Limestone Books, an imprint of the University Press of Kentucky.

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