Kentucky’s Primary Is a Test for the Green New Deal

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Besides President Donald Trump, there’s no Republican who environmentalists are more keen to unseat this autumn than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Two primary challengers have very different ideas of how to do so.

On the one hand, there’s Amy McGrath, a centrist who has the backing of the Democratic Party and once said McConnell’s biggest problem is that he has blocked Trump from enacting his agenda. Weeks ago, she was presumed to be the frontrunner. But Charles Booker, a young, Black, working class progressive who’s running on the Green New Deal and is backed by the Sunrise Movement, is giving her a run for her money. While both face a steep climb to beat McConnell in the general election, the primary could end up being a proving ground for how the transition to clean energy plays in coal country.

Kentucky is the fifth-largest coal producer in the U.S. Though the industry has tailed off, it’s still powerful in the state. McConnell has accepted over $1 million dollars from mining companies over the course of his five-term career and loyally voted in ways that benefit them. Despite its status as a failing industry, McConnell has vowed to bring back coal (it won’t work).


Both McGrath and Booker have promised to behave differently, representing coal industry workers instead of its bosses. But while McGrath has said she doesn’t think Kentucky needs to phase out coal completely and has not been supportive of the Green New Deal, Booker has made it a central piece of his campaign. His climate plan says the crisis requires the nation to “dramatically reducing our dependence on fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gases, and instead building the infrastructure of an economy that thrives on clean, renewable sources of energy.”


“Charles Booker understands that we need to fight for comprehensive progressive solutions to have a chance at a better future for us all, which is why he supports a Green New Deal,” Ariel Moger, legislative and political coordinator for Friends of the Earth Action, told Earther in an email. “In addition to centering justice and equity, a key component of the Green New Deal is a just transition to help workers and frontline communities adjust to and eventually thrive in a cleaner and more sustainable economy.”

McGrath has a climate plan too, but it’s far narrower in scope. Though she acknowledges that global warming is happening, she says very little about what should be done about it. And unlike Booker, she’s refused to pledge not to accept fossil fuel donations.


“Her plan doesn’t show that she gets the scale and scope of this crisis,” Steven O’Hanlon, communications director for the Sunrise Movement, told Earther in an email.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that Booker’s platform is far too radical for a bright red state that’s elected Mitch McConnell five times. But data suggests that Kentuckians support progressive climate policy such as phasing out of fossil fuels by 2050. And as Tuesday’s primary election draws closer, that seems to be playing out. Booker recently garnered a slew of high profile endorsements, and polls show him surging past McGrath.


Since Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was first elected in 1984, he’s been a constant source of anger for environmentalists. From voting in his first term to limit Clean Water Act enforcement, to bashing the Green New Deal last year and teaming up with Trump to pack the courts with climate-denying judges, he’s consistently worked to prevent meaningful environmental action. The League of Conservation Voters gave him an abysmal 7% lifetime score on environmental policy.

But Moger says Booker’s candidacy offers a chance to do more than unseat McConnell.


“It’s about electing a progressive champion who is already fighting for the people of Kentucky and building a grassroots movement with a diverse and dedicated coalition,” she said.

Against Booker, McGrath is pitching herself as the safe choice. But amid the climate crisis, centrism is by no means safe. Climate scientists have made it clear that to avert catastrophe, world leaders will need to make radical changes. That’s why Booker is pitching a transformative vision for the environment and the economy. And according to the latest polls, many Kentuckians may be ready to get on board.


In the end whether or not that transformative vision can beat out a moderate Democrat or a powerful five-term Republican incumbent remains to be seen. But in the face of the ever-worsening climate crisis, we have no choice but to try.