Can the Yang Gang Take Out Mitch McConnell?

On Friday morning, Andrew Yang dropped his first U.S. Senate endorsement of 2020. For those who’d been wondering how Yang might wield the political capital accrued during his giddy run for president — beyond championing Universal Basic Income and toying with a run for mayor of New York City — here was an answer. And that answer was … Mike Broihier? Who is, apparently, a longshot candidate for Senate from Kentucky?

Yes, indeed: Mike Broihier. And there’s a backstory here, folks. One that’s well worth telling, especially at a time when we could all use a worthy underdog to root for, and a far-fetched dream to dream. So sit right back and you’ll hear a tale.

When Yang folded his presidential tent on New Hampshire primary day in February, most of the young staffers who’d created the buzzy operation that lifted him from obscurity to the Democratic debate stage were left proud but wrung out — and looking for their next crusade. But Liam deClive Lowe, a rapid-fire talker who ran Yang’s Iowa caucus operations, had long known exactly what he wanted to do when the Yang Gang days had run their course: return to his native Louisville and work to oust Mitch McConnell.

The problem was whom to work for. Like many Kentucky Democrats, deClive Lowe had hoped for an out-of-the-box run by Matt Jones, a Coal Country native who’d become the state’s best-known progressive populist — and an arch McConnell antagonist — as the founder and star host of Kentucky Sports Radio. But after Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer recruited moderate Amy McGrath, a former fighter pilot who’d gained national notoriety in a close-but-no-cigar bid for Congress in 2018, to make the race, Jones ultimately opted out. To most political observers, that meant the contest to face McConnell was effectively over. With McGrath raking in millions from national Democrats desperate to ditch Mitch, she appeared to face nothing but token opposition from a roster of obscure candidates, only one of whom, first-term state Rep. Charles Booker, had ever won an election.

“This is just depressing,” deClive Lowe recalls thinking. McConnell was more vulnerable to defeat than he’d been in decades, with rock-bottom approval ratings back home. But McGrath was running the same old Lite Republican campaign that Democrats had always tried against the evil genius of the Senate—and always struck out with, badly. Six years ago, the last time McConnell stood for re-election, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (controlled by Schumer) had chosen Alison Lundergan Grimes, the centrist scion of a powerful Democratic clan, to carry the Democratic banner. She’d raised record money, looked strong in early polls, and then triangulated herself into knots, even refusing to say whether or not she’d voted for Barack Obama. McConnell, despite his unpopularity, ended up steamrolling her by 15 points. Now the script was repeating itself: McGrath had kicked off her campaign by telling an interviewer she’d have voted to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh (awkwardly reversing course two hours later) and claiming she’d be a stronger ally for Donald Trump’s agenda than McConnell; now, come February, she was beaming TV ads across the state vowing to oppose Medicare for All and free college. DeClive Lowe, who’d cut his political teeth working for Bernie Sanders in 2016 and Beto O’Rourke in 2018, was not about to jump on that train. “I know what going up against a mega-villain in a Senate race should be like,” he told me. McGrath’s bid was not that.

But there was this other guy in the race, a wild card named Mike Broihier who’d been saying and doing interesting stuff for months while gaining little traction. A first-time candidate at 57, Broihier seemed to have the perfect mix of life experiences for a red-state Democrat. In 2005, after a 21-year career in the Marine Corps (serving in Somalia, Japan, and Afghanistan, among other places), the retired lieutenant colonel had bought a 75-acre working farm with his wife, Lynn Wisehart (also a retired Marine) in rural Lincoln County, where he’d raised animals and asparagus, edited a local newspaper, and worked as a substitute teacher. His politics were straight-up progressive: all in for a Green New Deal, single-payer health care, marijuana legalization, reproductive rights, gun control and UBI.

Broihier announced his candidacy last July, a week after McGrath had rolled hers out and raised a record $2.5 million in the first day. The banner on his website-in-progress read: “Mike is not the hand-picked candidate of Washington Democrats.” His launch video, “Labels,” was bracingly provocative. The spot featured Kentuckians of various stripes holding small chalkboards containing slurs people might use against them: “queer,” “hillbilly,” “baby killer.” “Labels are powerful things,” Broihier says in the voiceover. “For 35 years, Mitch McConnell has used labels to reinforce old prejudices, to divide us, to maintain his grip on power.”

Broihier knew Kentuckians well enough to know they have a rebellious streak a mile wide. He thought they just might connect with a non-career-politician, a no-bullshit guy who shared their loathing of McConnell, the ultimate political insider. “It helps to be a veteran, too,” he says. “People are more willing to listen without ideological blinders.” What led him to stand for the Senate, he says, was “the dawning realization that Trump and this dysfunctional administration was more a symptom, and McConnell was the cause. He’s an existential threat to the Republic I swore an oath to. He doesn’t give a damn about Kentucky or America. He cares about two things: political power and personal wealth. That’s what drives him, period.”

To jump-start the campaign, Mike and Lynn sold off excess farm equipment, their one donkey, and even their beloved motorcycles. “Seeing the Harley go down the driveway with someone else on it was hard,” he says. Everything was hard, as it turned out. “In the beginning,” Wisehart says, “we felt like a candidate who would speak from his heart and mind directly would appeal to people more than a candidate saying what they think an audience wants to hear.” But the DSCC’s backing of McGrath proved more of an obstacle than they’d counted on. “Not having been in the political game before, we didn’t realize the extent to which they can put their thumb on the scale and really cause a blackout against other candidates,” she says.

With few political connections and no big-money pipeline, Broihier was “really slogging it out” for the first few months, he says. “You know, reaching out blind on Facebook to Democratic women’s clubs and activist groups, saying, I’m running for Senate, can I speak to you? If they said yes, I’d drive anywhere, anytime, and stay to answer questions until they were numb.” Those who heard him responded well. There just weren’t enough of them.

Last fall, Jones — who believed that Broihier “could be a great candidate if he could get known” — passed along his contact information to deClive Lowe, who’d advised Jones on his potential run. The young operative called Broihier from Iowa in December to chat. Soon after he returned home in February, Broihier came calling. “I’m sitting there exhausted, but we talked at the kitchen table for hours,” deClive Lowe told me. With just three months to go before the scheduled May 19 primary, he didn’t think Broihier had any realistic shot at overcoming McGrath’s advantages. But he couldn’t help himself. “I was bowled over by his intelligence, his authenticity, his ability to speak fluently on any policy issue you could ask about. He had a combination of fire and the right kind of ambition—not for himself, but for what he could do. He had pure motivations for running. I felt like what I was seeing was, for Kentucky specifically, a kind of once-in-a-century candidate.” Broihier wanted him to take over the campaign. “I said, OK, let’s give it a month and see what happens.”

Yang Gangers’ phones were soon lighting up with a familiar number. Justin Williams, Yang 2020’s regional organizing director, had already been hired to help bring down vulnerable Republican Senator Susan Collins. “I was in the car, a little bit past Michigan, on my way to Maine,” Williams says. “Liam called and said, this guy is the real deal. Just talk to him. One call with Mike and I turned my car around and drove right to Kentucky to the farm and got to work.” Connor Murphy, Yang 2020’s national precinct captain director, had just gotten back home to Virginia—after one day running Yang’s Nevada operation, then shutting it down—when he got the summons. “I drove to Kentucky and met Mike and Lynn on the farm,” he says. “When I was heading there, I thought it was maybe a little quixotic. But within an hour, I decided this is the guy to beat Mitch McConnell.”

And so it went. Pheng Yang, a digital specialist who was one of Andrew Yang’s first 2020 hires, says he’d been “wondering what to do next with my life when Liam called. I’d never heard of Mike, but I dug into him and liked his policies.” By the time he got to Broihier’s farm, there were no spare beds left, but the farmer across the way had lent the campaign his old Winnebago—emphasis on old. “It was cozy, I would say,” Pheng Yang says, laughing. “It was me and another guy. I would sleep on the couch and he would sleep on the bed and the roof was leaking. We called it a rite of passage. We worked out of Mike’s kitchen and the Winnebago. No pay.”

With a growing team of operatives—seven by the first of March, climbing toward 30 by May (with only four taking salaries)—Broihier’s campaign gradually picked up steam. New-age guru and erstwhile presidential hopeful Marianne Williamson endorsed him in late February. Broihier and his new senior advisor Scott Santens, who’d also advised Yang, rolled out a new UBI plan that garnered some positive attention. At a candidate forum in Northern Kentucky on March 5, Broihier—poised, pointed, and plain-spoken—outshone McGrath, who struggled to parse out her positions. When the organizers, a local chapter of the progressive group Indivisible, exit-polled attendees and online viewers, a whopping 88 percent said they’d vote for Broihier. Indivisible KY, along with several local chapters, soon endorsed him.

When the COVID-19 crisis became an official national emergency one week later, conventional wisdom said it was dire news for both of McGrath’s progressive challengers. “Booker and Broihier needed rallies and grassroots energy to win,” wrote Louisville Courier-Journal columnist Phillip M. Bailey, “and the ‘healthy-at-home’ order cuts them off at the knees.” But while their days of farm living were now over, as they fanned back out across the country to work remotely from home, the Broihier staff (which now included former Sanders and Elizabeth Warren staffers) “just gracefully and nimbly shifted gears to become a true digital campaign,” the candidate says. And when Kentucky pushed back the Democratic primary to June 23, they got an extra 35 days to try and pull off a shocker.

The campaign aired its first truly viral video on March 17, when McConnell was stirring outrage for flying back to Louisville from Washington for a four-day weekend after taking no action on the pandemic. Over images of Trump bloviating and McConnell smirking, Broihier’s voiceover lambastes the majority leader for enabling the president’s various “derelictions of duty,” now culminating in a deadly crisis. “Because of Mitch, more Americans will die. More Kentuckians will die. Mitch has blood on his hands,” he concludes. The video, produced by deClive Lowe’s 17-year-old brother Oliver and a team of three other young volunteer video editors, was widely retweeted by new fans like Cenk Uygur, co-founder of Justice Democrats and host of The Young Turks. “This is how you run a campaign,” he told his followers. “This guy can beat Mitch McConnell.”

The lockdown had its hidden advantages for a cash-strapped campaign short on time. Rallies cost money; so does door-to-door fieldwork. Now that he didn’t have to drive around the state for interviews with local papers and radio stations—a staple of his strategy from the start—Broihier could do several “hits” in a row from home, saving on travel expenses while reaching more folks. He began hosting a nightly podcast named after the farm, Chicken Bristle Live, which now garners thousands of daily views across platforms—and allows the campaign to identify potential volunteers who can spread the word on their own networks and be asked to host virtual house parties on Zoom. (The campaign says they now have 25 to 30 house parties, featuring the candidate, per week.) As the primary nears, with Kentucky trying out its first all-mail election, the volunteers (or MMTs—Mike Multiplier Teams) will be tasked with making sure at least three friends and family members request ballots and submit them. With the presidential contest already settled, and many assuming that McGrath is a sure winner in the Senate primary, turnout is sure to be far lower than usual. The upshot: Broihier would need fewer votes to win. And with voters having to request ballots (many states are sending them to all registered voters without an ask), there will be a premium on organizing and enthusiasm.

When I spoke with staffers and key supporters this week, it was clear that inside the virtual campaign bubble, the Broihier gang is starting to feel some cautious optimism. Outside the bubble, it seems safer to say that Broihier’s chances have probably gone from none to slim. McGrath’s ads continue to blanket the state’s seven media markets, while McConnell continues to try painting her as a left-wing “extremist”—a label that won’t do her any harm in the primary. And Booker, a fellow UBI advocate who’s run a feisty campaign of his own, will undoubtedly garner his share of progressive votes. “The problem for Broihier and Booker is that they’re both running,” Jones says. “Democrats are looking for an alternative to McGrath, but I’m afraid those two are going to end up splitting it,” allowing the frontrunner to win by default even if she fares poorly.

Because the race was presumed to be over before it began, there’s been no reliable independent polling—and thus no real way to measure whether Broihier is actually breaking through. The campaign is banking on Broihier dominating the one debate McGrath has reluctantly agreed to, on public television on June 1. They’re cranking up just the kind of smart-sounding, data-driven MOTV (mail out the vote) effort that you should, by now, be expecting. And they’re counting on Yang’s support to boost his national profile, and help scare up enough money to buy paid media down the final stretch.

Yang’s endorsement, which came with a joint nod from his group Humanity Forward, was announced on Twitter on Friday morning. “Kentucky needs a fighter like Mike,” Yang wrote. “I’m tired of Mitch McConnell blocking meaningful action in Washington. Mitch is the king of the swamp. Mike is a farmer, educator, former small-town newspaper editor, and a former Marine officer. Who would you vote for?” The Broihier campaign simultaneously released a new video likening their two “outsider” campaigns, along with a personal video message from the candidate (wearing a farm hat that shouldn’t be missed)—and, naturally enough, a new fundraising page.

The likeliest outcome, still, is that sad and orderly reality will prevail on primary day: The Giants won’t beat the Patriots, Truman won’t stun Dewey, Yang won’t win New Hampshire, and the remnant of his gang that rallied behind Broihier will find themselves re-dispersing on June 24, most of them landing on more conventional campaigns this summer and fall. Lynn Wisehart will have her husband back in the fields to help bring in the asparagus. And Mitch McConnell will, barring the unforeseen, ruthlessly grind his way to a seventh term, smirking that smirk. Even so, this unlikeliest of campaigns will have invented some new tricks for low-budget insurgencies to come. It will have preached the UBI gospel to some new adherents in the heartland. If it turns out to have been a pipe dream, after all, at least it was a dream worth having.

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