It’s a dreary, rainy day in Troy, Missouri, and Jason Kander is about to meet a small group of veterans at the Roasted Bean Coffee Shop. In a weird, parallel universe, the 35-year-old Democrat would be stumping for his second term as secretary of state. But Kander’s aiming higher and is focusing his time and energy on trying to unseat U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt.
Few national pundits believed Kander’s gambit would be worthwhile. They looked at presidential results and polls, and concluded (wrongly) Missouri was just too Republican for a Democrat to prevail. But Kander never bought into that type of assumptive prognostication. And now, Kander is within striking distance of being a building block for his party’s return to power in the U.S. Senate.
“I am as frustrated as all Missourians are about how broken Washington is,” Kander said near the back of the coffee shop. “I feel that we need a new generation of leadership. And we’re not going to change Washington until we change the people we send there.”
As the national environment turns increasingly hostile toward Republicans, most analysts see the Kander-Blunt race as one of the most competitive Senate contests in the country. Few think that beating Blunt will be easy: The Republican is widely regarded as one of Missouri’s shrewdest politicians. (A profile of Sen. Blunt is also available.) And now that D.C. folk think he has a chance, outside groups are spending a gargantuan amount of money to knock him out.
Kander’s supporters say they’re energized to get him in the Senate – and in turn making him one of the first millennials to enter Congress’ upper chamber.
“I need somebody of like mind in Senate who is a tactician, who has a focus on the issues, but is not stuck in this ideological box where he can’t make a deal or can’t work across the aisle,” said U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, during a recent campaign stop in St. Louis.
It’s fair to say that Kander squeezed a lot of different things into his 35 years. He earned a law degree from Georgetown, worked for large and small law firms, spent two terms representing a part of Kansas City in the Missouri House, and became one of the youngest statewide officials in recent memory.
If he were to beat Blunt, Kander would be the first person who was born after 1980 to serve in the U.S. Senate. He sees a benefit to have the millennial generation play a major role in public policy.
“This is a generation that is much more focused on ideas rather than on ideology,” Kander said. “You don’t have to be a certain age to take that approach. But … at least from a philosophical perspective, I suppose it is a generational approach that says ‘What’s happening in Washington right now is not working.’”
Before entering electoral politics, Kander joined the military. He was a military intelligence officer in Afghanistan, experience that’s been at the heart of his two statewide campaigns.
Kander says his time as a soldier and an officer gave him “a greater ability to put things in perspective and to know what’s important and to be able to make decisions absent of whatever pressures that exist in life.”
“Just know that you usually know the right thing – just do the right thing,” Kander said. “And that’s made me a better secretary of state. It made me a better state representative. It’ll make me a better senator. But the reason it’s important to me is because it’s also made me a better father, and a better husband, and a better man.”
Kander first jumped into the electoral fray in 2008, when he captured a vacant state representative seat. His ability to pass legislation in the GOP-dominated chamber was limited, though he did help shape a wide-ranging ethics bill in 2010. (The Missouri Supreme Court struck down the bill in 2012 on procedural grounds.)
Almost immediately after then-Secretary of State Robin Carnahan declined to run for a third term, Kander entered the Democratic contest to replace her. After facing token opposition in the Democratic primary, Kander narrowly defeated then-House President Pro Tem Shane Schoeller.
Some outside observers were skeptical of Kander’s ability to win that 2012 statewide election. Schoeller was a strong candidate with a solid base of support in GOP-leaning southwest Missouri. But a close GOP primary for secretary of state, the collapse of Todd Akin’s U.S. Senate campaign, and Kander's stout fundraising and sharp advertisements helped. And the candidate points to something else: hard work.
“We just worked it really, really hard,” Kander said in 2014. “I just think Missourians responded to our message, which was real simple. It was just that the secretary of state should be someone who has the courage to put partisanship, put politics aside and do the job.”
Kander didn’t actually pull ahead of Schoeller until late into the evening on Election Night. When the numbers showed him 2,800 votes ahead, Kander said he turned to his campaign manager Abe Rakov and said, “That’s at least how many hands I shook at county fairs around the state.”
“We put 90,000 miles on the car getting all over the state,” Kander said.
Eye on national security
If he were to enter the U.S. Senate next year, Kander said he would request a seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee. He was critical of Blunt’s decision to leave that committee.
“Not only is it important to our state, but I am very much of the belief that we need more people in Congress who have actually served in uniform,” Kander said. “And that’s a place where I believe I can make a difference with my perspective.”
Kander also said it’s also important to bring a veteran’s perspective to important congressional decisions involving the military – such as whether to commit ground troops to a conflict. He said federal lawmakers need to not only consider the logistics of sending soldiers into foreign territory, but also how to get them out and “the consideration of you’re going to create more veterans when you do that.”
Had he been in Congress in the early 2000s, Kander said he would have voted against the Iraq War – a conflict he called a “massive mistake.” Blunt voted for the Iraq War while in the U.S. House.
“Iraq was not the country that attacked us.” Kander said. “And for me, personally? I had the experience of being on the receiving end of the policies that resulted from the attention being diverted from Afghanistan to Iraq when I was in Afghanistan in 2006.”
From talking with friends who still work in the intelligence field or in Afghanistan, Kander said one “really startling” observation “is the degree to which ISIS has become a major threat in Afghanistan.”
“It’s not just Iraq. It’s not just Syria. It’s spread to places that you wouldn’t have expected. And that’s really concerning,” Kander said. “And it means that the number-one priority for our foreign policy and for our national security policy has got to be destroying ISIS. And it’s got to be a recognition that ISIS has spread out around the world out of a position of strength – not out of a position of weakness the way al-Qaeda did when so much pressure was put downward on al-Qaeda and they defused as a result.”
From a domestic perspective, Kander is a supporter of abortion rights and opposes “right to work” proposals. He’s come out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Iran nuclear deal. And he’s in favor of some types of restrictions on firearms, as showcased in a memorable ad where assembled a gun blindfolded. (That video has been watched more than 1.2 million times on YouTube.)
“I have always believed that running for office should be about saying exactly who you are,” Kander said. “Now there are a lot of areas where I disagree with my party. I agree with Missourians who overwhelmingly feel the way I feel: That part of protecting the Second Amendment is making sure that criminals and suspected terrorists don’t get the same chance to buy a gun as you and I get. And the ad really just sets the record straight on that. And that’s why you’ve seen such a great bipartisan response to it.”
Flow of support and criticism
Missouri voters have a history of electing Democrats to statewide office – including to the U.S. Senate. But a slew of national watchers of congressional races tagged Missouri’s Senate race as safe for Republicans, citing Blunt’s incumbency, his relative lack of scandals and the likelihood that Missourians would vote a GOP presidential nominee.
One of the people who believed in Kander’s chances before national pundits was St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones. At an April press conference, Jones praised her former Missouri House colleague for not running just “to keep the seats warm,” but to accomplish public policy goals.
She also said that Kander has showcased a sincere desire to reach out to St. Louis’ African-American community.
“I personally experienced how Jason is committed to our community, because he sat through an entire service at [Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church] with me when he was running for secretary of state,” Jones said. “And anybody who goes to Friendly Temple knows that our services are a good two-and-a-half hours long. Jewish guy in a Baptist service. And he enjoyed it. He enjoyed it.”
It’s not just Missouri political figures who have taken notice. In addition to receiving help from Democratic-leaning groups spending millions of dollars on advertisements attacking Blunt, Kander received high-level support from national political figures like Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota.
“Jason Kander is unbelievable,” said Franken during a speech to the Missouri delegation at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. “[U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill] brought him up and sang his praises. And she is absolutely right about Jason. And you know it.”
Just as he did in his race against Schoeller, Kander has been aggressively attacking Blunt as a Washington insider who’s lost touch with Missouri. Kander (and supportive Democratic third-party groups) have focused especially hard on how Blunt’s wife and children are lobbyists. (Robin Carnahan used a similar argument when she ran against Blunt in 2010 to little effect.)
“I want to be really clear. I in no way think anybody in Sen. Blunt’s family should have to get a new job. I’m not suggesting that they’re anything other than impressive people who are good at their jobs,” Kander said. “I do, however, believe that Sen. Blunt has a conflict of interest and he should get a new job.”
Needless to say, Blunt and his fellow Republicans have a lot dimmer view of Kander.
In an interview with St. Louis Public Radio’s Jo Mannies, Blunt cast Kander as an overly ambitious politician who is constantly running for office. He’s also contended Kander has paid little attention to the secretary of state’s office and had an unremarkable stint in the Missouri House.
“If you look at our records, I’ll be re-elected,” said Blunt, who has been in local, state and federal office since the 1970s.
Both Blunt and his supportive groups have derisively tried to link Kander to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, especially after her campaign announced that it was spending money in Missouri to help Kander and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Chris Koster.
“I expect that Sen. Blunt is going to prevail at the end of the day,” said House Speaker Todd Richardson. “And that’s because he’s got a message that’s more in line with where voters are: It’s a pro-life, pro-gun, pro-growth message. And when Secretary Kander has to run in same party as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, I think he’s got an uphill battle in Missouri.”
Presidential coattails overrated?
Blunt could be helped by GOP president nominee Donald Trump's expected win in Missouri. But there’s recent evidence that presidential contests aren’t decisive in U.S. Senate races.
In 2012, five states – West Virginia, Montana, North Dakota, Indiana and Missouri – voted for GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and a Democratic U.S. Senator. McCaskill prevailed by a landslide after Akin’s “legitimate rape” comments. Indeed, the Akin story has gotten fresh attention in the wake of Trump’s troubles.
Both Republicans and Democrats say the 2012 results show how discerning Missouri voters can be.
“Missourians are very independent thinkers,” says U.S. Rep. Jason Smith, R-Salem. “And they’re going to vote for the candidate, not based on what someone at the top of the ticket does or what the bottom of the ticket does.”
Still, it's not out of the question that how Trump does in some key counties could affect the Senate race’s outcome. For instance: Kander narrowly won Jefferson County in 2012. But GOP activists believe that Trump will resonate with the county’s largely white, blue-collar voter base. And that could force Kander to increase his margins in urban and suburban counties, as well as more rural communities like Lincoln County.
“I would not be surprised to see Mr. Trump win this county and maybe even the state,” said former state Rep. Ed Schieffer, a Troy Democrat who served with Kander in the Missouri House. “But I think the race is going to be so tight, you’ve got to go down to the governor’s race. And I have no doubt Chris Koster’s going to be the next governor. If he carries as much as I think he’s going to carry, that’s going to help Mr. Kander and Koster together more than Trump possibly winning this state.”
Unlike other U.S. Senate candidates, Kander hasn’t run ads that really focus on Blunt’s decision to back Trump. That may not be an effective strategy anyway if Trump wins here, since Kander would essentially be criticizing Blunt for backing the candidate that majority of Missourians support.
In fact, Kander said Trump's emergence may actually help his cause.
“I don’t know what the outcome of the presidential race will be, but I think it will continue to exist a little bit on an island from this race,” Kander said. “Even folks who may feel that they want to shake things up and shake the conversation up at the presidential level, those folks are not just turning around and voting for somebody for the Senate who’s been there for 20 years and who is part of the problem.”