Are Missourians Ready To Buck A Red Wave? Don't Laugh
Politico featured two Senate candidates this morning; a mentioned of Schumer's pointless careerist in Florida and a in depth look at an out of the blue populist hero in Missouri... Val Demings and Lucas Kunce. Demings, with no chance of coming close to unseating Marco Rubio short of a massive blue wave, is still hoping to overcome what Gary Fineout referred to as "a lot of headwinds in Florida going into 2022, whether it’s fundraising disadvantages, President Joe Biden’s sinking poll ratings here, or the fact that Republicans have overtaken them in voter registrations." Since Demings has never done a thing of substance in her entire political career, she's hoping, pathetically, to use the infrastructure bill to persuade voters to replace Rubio with her. Yesterday, someone on her team told her to tweet "The Sunshine State is set to repair roads and bridges thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Marco Rubio voted against this. I voted for it." Anyone care to bet on this tired DSCC strategy-- especially in the face of a red wave?
Demings may be the worst of Schumer's 2022 recruits. Kunce wasn't recruited by Schumer at all. If she's the most boring candidate of the cycle, Kunce is absolutely one of the 2 or 3 most exciting, described by St. Louis-based author Kathy Gilsinan as a "Marine veteran, millennial, populist Democratic contender for a U.S. Senate seat in this very Republican state." Like Demings, he "does not come from money. As he tells people on the campaign trail, he grew up in a working-class neighborhood of Jefferson City, the state capital, where medical bills related to his little sister’s heart condition at one point bankrupted his family. If you get Demings constant flow of spam, you know one thing: she's a descendant of slaves. Kunce prefers to use his emails to tell Missouri voters what he'll do tomato their lives better-- and how.
His theory of the races that so many people around the state feel a powerlessness that makes them "part of a system that insists on keeping them down, no matter how hard they try." A Democrat is an increasingly red state, Kunce "prefers to call himself a populist, and he’s hoping a campaign against big corporations and corrupt politicians, on behalf of American workers hurt by globalization and monopoly power, will have enough appeal across partisan and racial divides to put him over the top. Nine months ahead of the 2022 primary, he has attracted national attention and cable-news spots for his blistering critiques of the war in Afghanistan, where he deployed twice-- Kabul’s collapse, he says, was inevitable; U.S. elites lied about the war for 20 years; and defense contractors got rich while communities like his hometown decayed. Last quarter, Kunce outraised all his opponents in the race, Republicans included. And no matter if the issue is war in the Middle East, agriculture in the Midwest or pretty much anything else, his appeal to unity is this: Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, you’re all getting screwed."
Blue America endorsed his campaign back in March, before almost anyone outside of Missouri had ever heard of him. He's got everything that separates a political leader from the kind of grubby politicians Schumer and McConnell recruit for Senate races. Gilsinan reports that "Kunce’s race is a test case for Democrats still struggling to absorb the lessons of Trump’s appeal and reverse their losses among working-class and rural voters, especially in the heartland. It’s also an experiment in reclaiming political populism for Democrats after the GOP’s near-takeover, and defining it with neither the anti-immigrant nationalism of Donald Trump nor the religious conservatism and anti-wokeness of Josh Hawley. But Kunce can be just as critical of national Democrats as he is of Republicans, all of whom he portrays as part of the same corrupt system in thrall to Wall Street donors and lobbyists. He believes the concerns of the working class, white or Black or anything else, are essentially the same, and that the same anti-corporate message can win over Harley-riding Trump voters in southern Missouri and Black retirees in south St. Louis. 'The working class is the working class,' he says. 'The issues are a cross-cutting lack of power for normal everyday people and a system that carves us up and has us against each other.'"
Missouri is an especially revealing venue for this experiment, as a former longtime swing state once prone to electing moderates on the left and right, where Republicans now control every branch of state government and hold eight of the 10 seats in the congressional delegation. “A win here in Missouri,” Kunce says-- where plains populism once had a foothold, where voters have a history of independent-mindedness and “show me” practicality-- “literally changes everything. It shows that we can be the party of working people.” The state’s recent political history tells a story of Democrats alienating former supporters through a combination of ideological mismatch and grassroots neglect-- and Kunce’s political fate will show whether an anti-elite economic message will be enough to win them back.
...Democrats kept losing in Missouri in part because they weren’t trying as hard as Republicans to fundraise and recruit candidates, according to political operatives I spoke to from both parties. But Republicans also argue the state hasn’t so much moved right as Democrats have moved left-- the pro-gun, anti-abortion Missouri Democrat voter of yesteryear is simply a Republican now. “It’s clear national Democrats have abandoned Missouri,” says Steele Shippy, a senior strategist for Republican state Senate President Dave Schatz, who’s also vying for Blunt’s seat. “Missouri Democrats have zero party infrastructure, traditional Democrat donors don’t want to waste their resources, and they are in constant conflict with voters for embracing the socialist agenda being pushed by the DNC.” (Michael Butler, the current chair of the Missouri Democratic Party, concedes that party infrastructure in the state is “not what it should be.”)
Then came Trump in 2016, and the state that supported one Clinton routed the other by nearly 20 points. Even Trump voters, though, were perfectly willing to vote for Democrats down the ballot. That was also the year Jason Kander-- another Democratic veteran with a knack for media who, like Kunce, wanted Blunt’s Senate seat-- shot to national prominence with a viral campaign ad in which he assembled an AR-15 blindfolded and said, “I’d like to see Senator Blunt do this.” Butler of the Missouri Democratic Party recalled seeing Trump signs alongside Kander signs in the Kansas City suburbs and even rural areas that year. “Folks try to say Trump voters won’t vote Democrat,” Butler told me. “But that’s just not true in Missouri.” Kander came within 3 points of unseating Blunt, netting hundreds of thousands of Trump voters in the state; without Trump on the ballot, he might well have won.
The Missouri electorate has since sent some other contradictory signals that Kunce holds up as evidence that the state, even now, isn’t as red as it looks. Since 2018, Missourians have passed ballot initiatives to legalize medical marijuana, expand Medicaid and overturn a “right-to-work” law opposed by labor unions. Meanwhile, the most recent St. Louis University poll, from over the summer, found that 73 percent of Missourians think the economy is not in good shape, perhaps underscoring the advantage of an economic message for a candidate like Kunce. On the other hand, slight majorities also thought the state government should ban abortions after eight weeks of pregnancy and that “critical race theory” should not be taught in schools-- both issues where Kunce trends to the left. The voter picture on pandemic restrictions is mixed, with voters about evenly split on how they rate the national response and mostly approving of their state and local response. Republican Senate candidates have spoken passionately against mask and vaccine mandates, but Kunce says he rarely hears voters bring up Covid. In any case, populist rhetoric seems to pay, at least for the GOP: Hawley beats Blunt’s approval rating by double digits.
This is all before you even get to the matter of Kunce’s likely opponent, and whether Kunce can pull a Claire McCaskill. In 2012, the then-Democratic Missouri senator, in her own words, “successfully manipulated the Republican primary” to promote a flawed Republican challenger, Todd Akin, whom she then beat in the general election. (McCaskill went on to lose her seat in the next cycle, to Hawley.) Greitens’ governorship-ending scandal in 2018, which he attributes to smears by “a George Soros-funded prosecutor and the swamp,” has prompted Republicans in Missouri and nationally to worry he could put the seat in play for Democrats. Greitens has branded himself the “MAGA” candidate in a very Trump-oriented primary field and embraces an eclectic brand of populism that is more anti-leftist than anti-corporate. The conservative radio host and columnist Hugh Hewitt has asked Greitens: “Am I right to worry that you’re Todd Akin 2.0?” Greitens told Hewitt that’s “absolutely wrong,” but Jean Evans, the former chair of the Missouri Republican Party, isn’t so sure. “For Kunce, he’s got a tough road ahead of him, but if he can keep [the race] localized and come across a weak opponent, he may have a chance.” She doesn’t think Greitens will win the primary despite his current polling lead. But if he does, she says, “it’s an opening” for a Democrat. (The Greitens campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)
National Democrats certainly think they have an opening, even if they’re not yet willing to weigh in on the Kunce versus Sifton [another Val Demings kind of candidate] race in their own primary field. But they’re happy to point to the wide and wild GOP primary field — which, in addition to Greitens, includes Eric Schmitt, the Missouri attorney general best-known for his multiple lawsuits against China, the Biden administration and Missouri officials who impose mask mandates; Mark McCloskey, the personal-injury attorney made briefly famous last year in a viral photo of him and his wife waving guns at protesters walking past their St. Louis mansion; Billy Long, a U.S. representative once known as the best auctioneer in the Ozarks; and Rep. Vicky Hartzler, who put out a campaign ad mocking Greitens’ scandals with the line: “When I need to see a hairdresser, I make an appointment.” A sixth candidate, state Senate President Schatz, jumped into the race just last week. Given what she calls a “vicious and expensive primary full of deeply flawed candidates” on the right, Democratic Senate Campaign Committee spokesperson Amanda Sherman Baity says, “Missouri could be a major defensive liability for Republicans.”
...Asked by a voter at the senior center who would be his best ally in the Senate, he would only say who wouldn’t: Josh Hawley, for one. Centrist Democrats Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, whom Kunce believes are blocking needed investments in the country, for two others. (“We spent $6.4 trillion trying to build up other countries in our forever wars,” runs a typical Kunce tweet. “Now D.C. can’t spend half of that on jobs and infrastructure here at home?” He says he would be a “yes” vote in the Senate for President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” social spending bill, though he’d want to make sure the funds weren’t captured by Wall Street or monopolies.) Asked if he was generally on the side of more progressive or more establishment Democrats, Kunce’s answer is basically: No. He likes to say he’s not about left-right, he’s about top-bottom. At the senior center and in interviews, he wouldn’t or couldn’t name a single serving member of the House or Senate he admires or believes he resembles, professing not to follow Washington, D.C., personalities closely. For political models, he reaches all the way back to fellow Missouri Democrat Harry Truman-- another veteran, of World War I, who desegregated the military, tried to get universal health care and, in Kunce’s view, fought for workers “and got pilloried for it.”
When we were just getting to know Kunce, he told us that his "number one mission is to make sure everyday Missourians-- working people who know how to take care of each other-- call the shots in our country, not the monopolies, multinational corporations, and career politicians who’ve sold off jobs and land and stripped our communities for parts. We’re building a populist, people-powered movement to create good jobs and stronger communities. For decades, we’ve lived in a broken system that puts most families one emergency away from economic disaster... [The transpartisan establishment] let our farmland be sold overseas to China and Brazil. Then Anheuser Bush was sold to Inbev and 1,400 jobs were immediately cut. Then Monsanto to Germany. Dozens of headquarters to the coasts. Dozens of factories, family farms, and small businesses, all gone. I saw that the whole time my buddies and I were risking our lives and our country was spending trillions trying to build up these other countries-- in towns like Habbaniyah, Fallujah, and Herat-- we should have been spending our money, blood, and sweat on towns like St. Joe, St. Louis, and Jefferson City... We need to fundamentally change who has power in this country." Please watch Kunce's launch video below and consider contributing to his campaign by clicking on the 2022 Senate thermometer above.