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Missouri's Kander hopes to use national stage, 'bigger mic' to advance voting rights, Democrats

Former Secretary of State Jason Kander stands outside a St. Louis polling place on Election Day in 2016.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Former Secretary of State Jason Kander stands outside a St. Louis polling place on Election Day in November 2016.

Often when a candidate loses a high-profile race, he or she prefers to lay low for a while. That’s not the case for former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander.

It’s been three months since he narrowly lost his bid to oust Republican U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt.  Since then, Kander has attracted— and seemingly sought —more national attention than he had during the campaign.

But in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio, the 35-year-old Democrat downplayed the significance. 

“Really, there’s not much to it. I’m not happy with the direction this president and this Congress is taking the country and I’m speaking out about it,” Kander said.

“I believe everybody has a platform. Right now, I have a platform to speak about things I don’t like.”

Make that multiple platforms.                 

He’s been a frequent presence on CNN and MSNBC in recent weeks, a guest on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher” and had an op-ed published in the Washington Post.

Plus, Kander announced that he’s formed a new political group called “Let America Vote” that will focus on pushing back against Republican efforts to impose stricter requirements on voters — an issue he spoke out about during his time in office.

While Kander can justifiably be seen as an expert on voting rights, University of Missouri-St. Louis political scientist Dave Robertson said, his national exposure is also an outgrowth of the current political climate.

“He may be looking for ways to build a brand for himself that would be noticeable to Democrats across the country,’’ Robertson said. “There’s no doubt that politics has been nationalizing, so a nationalized stature can be a real boon.”

And former Missouri GOP chairman John Hancock says he’s struck by Kander’s efforts to elevate his profile so soon, and so nationally.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,’’ Hancock said, adding that the exposure may not help Kander’s chances for another statewide office.

“He’s just not in step with the values of most Missourians,’’ said Hancock, now a political consultant. “If he has a political future, it’s not in Missouri.”

Kander declined to discuss any future political plans. But he said he’s convinced that a majority of American voters, especially fellow millennials, agree with his views rather than the Republicans calling many of the shots in Washington.

Taking on voting rights

More than a dozen states have passed voter ID laws in recent years; Missouri’s takes effect June 1 provided the state find a way to fund it.

Republicans argue that such measures protect elections against voter fraud. Democrats and voting rights groups say voter ID laws disproportionately affect minorities and low-income residents.

Kander says the GOP is trying to “make it harder for eligible voters to exercise their rights to cast a ballot,” and that the efforts are “into hyper-drive across the country” to set up Republicans for the 2018 and 2020 elections.

“They don’t want people who didn’t vote for them to be allowed to vote,’’ Kander added.

Kander’s new voting rights group comes as Missouri officials are debating how to come up with the money to pay for the free photo IDs and related documents that some voters may need to cast ballots next year.

New voting rights group can raise, spend unlimited cash

Let America Vote has the potential of providing Kander and his allies with a significant platform beyond voting rights.

Let America Vote is a 527, which refers to a nonprofit provision in an IRS code. Such groups can advocate for issues but not specific candidates, though many 527s run ads that tell viewers to “call on’’ a candidate to support or oppose some issue.

The nonprofits only have to periodically report donors to the IRS, and are not restricted in the size of donations they can collect or how much they can spend on a particular issue.

On the first day Kander’s group was announced, more than 1,000 people donated, he said, but declined to provide specifics.

The group’s board of advisors includes some major progressive figures, including human rights activist Martin Luther King III, Planned Parenthood Action Fund president Cecile Richards and several staff members for former President Barack Obama, including Josh Earnest, who was a press secretary.

Calls for Democrats to defend views

Voting rights isn’t the only issue in Kander’s sights. He’s also concerned about rebuilding the Democratic Party, nationally and in Missouri.

The problem isn’t the party’s views, he believes, but the failure to defend them properly. As he told the Washington Post in an email interview published Feb. 1:

“… I just believe it's about recognizing that progressive solutions are solutions for every American regardless of how much they make, what color they are, or where they live. … I think it's about unapologetically making the argument that lifting up people you don't know lifts you up, too.”

To that end, Kander recommends that like-minded Americans stand up. “We all have a platform," he told St. Louis Public Radio. "And I have been encouraging everybody, whether your platform is your neighborhood, or maybe you have a bigger microphone than that.”

Right now, Kander has a pretty substantial mic. Some Republicans, including state GOP chairman Todd Graves of Kansas City, are banking that he won’t have one for long.

“(He) has certainly gained some attention by attacking those who disagree with him — and while I'm sure it makes him feel better,” Graves said, “it's not a winning strategy for him in the long term." 

Follow Jo on Twitter: @jmannies

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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