He Wants to Win Missouri as a Populist. Just Don’t Compare Him to Josh Hawley.November 24, 2021
ST. LOUIS — Steering a Ford Focus through soggy mist toward the northeast Missouri farm town of Palmyra, Lucas Kunce — Marine veteran, millennial, populist Democratic contender for a U.S. Senate seat in this very Republican state — is explaining Missouri voters by way of a story about socks.
Kunce (pronounced “Koontz,” he says, “and the other way will get you in a lot of trouble, so be real careful about that”) 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. But every year before school started, he and his siblings got to pick out new shoes from Payless. Heading into eighth grade, Kunce got a pair of spotless white Reeboks, a source of serious pride for a teenaged boy in the late 1990s. “I’m, like, strutting through the school, hoping someone will notice,” he recalls. Finally, a wealthier boy took note: “Hey! Did you guys see Kunce’s new shoes?”
But the boy went on. “You can always tell how poor somebody is when they get new shoes, because their socks are so gray and nasty.”
Kunce remembers spending the rest of the day trying to hide his socks, stuffing the tops into his shoes and walking uncomfortably on lumps of fabric. He was working so hard just to be cool. His parents were working so hard to afford that for him. And he remembers, in that moment, “just this sinking feeling of, like, utter powerlessness.”
From there, back in the car, a self-conscious kid’s socks become a political parable that explains why Kunce thinks a state former President Donald Trump won by 15 points in 2020 might just send him, a Democrat who has never held elected office, to the Senate. He is seeking a seat Republicans have held since 1987, when Kunce, now a tall, long-limbed 39-year-old who favors hoodies and talks with his hands, was a toddler. But so many people around the state, he says, feel the same powerlessness he did as a teenager — that they’re part of a system that insists on keeping them down, no matter how hard they try.
Hence, his pitch: Kunce is a Democrat, yes, but he 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.
In this, he can sound remarkably like the more-famous Missouri populist who won a Senate seat with a similar-sounding message: Republican Josh Hawley. Kunce dislikes the comparison — he considers Hawley a “fake populist,” pointing to the senator’s upbringing (son of a banker, private-school grad) and votes to confirm “corporate judges” (he named Neil Gorsuch, though Hawley was not in the Senate when Gorsuch was confirmed). Don’t even get Kunce started on Hawley’s recent comments decrying video games and the state of American masculinity (Marines play video games, Kunce points out). But in rhetoric if not in backstory, it can be hard to tell the two apart. Although Kunce does not share Hawley’s worries about corporate “wokeness,” both men blame multinational corporations, Big Tech, China and elites for what ails America in general and Missouri in particular. Both of them, furthermore, went to Yale — though Kunce emphasizes that he did so with financial aid. (Hawley’s office declined to comment for this story.)
Even though Republican pollsters recently found Kunce losing, 40 percent to 47 percent, against the current GOP frontrunner, former Gov. Eric Greitens, Kunce finds that margin encouraging enough this early in the race, when many Missourians don’t even know who he is; his chief rival in the Democratic primary, the experienced former state Sen. Scott Sifton, loses to Greitens in the poll by a similar amount and faces similar name-recognition challenges, but he trails far behind Kunce in fundraising. Lots of people know Greitens, who resigned to avoid impeachment in a 2018 scandal involving an allegedly coerced sexual encounter with his hairdresser plus alleged campaign-finance shenanigans; he denies any wrongdoing, and struck a deal with the prosecutor to drop criminal charges at the time. Still, the prospect of a Greitens primary nomination has national Republicans anxious and national Democrats enthused. Incredibly for a Trump country seat currently held by a Republican, retiring Sen. Roy Blunt, and in a midterm year in which Democrats are expected to do badly, CNN has put the Missouri race on its list of the top 10 seats most likely to flip in 2022, though the Cook Political Report considers the seat solidly Republican, as do Missouri pollsters.
Slim odds notwithstanding, 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.
For an entire century beginning in 1904, Missouri was a famous political bellwether that picked the winner in every presidential election but one, when its voters went for Democrat Adlai Stevenson over Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956. “A mirror for the nation,” the Chicago Tribune called it in 2004, at the tail end of this period: “one part Dixie, one part industrial Detroit, a bit of Great Plains conservatism and a dash of the get-the-government-off-my-back-and-cut-my-taxes West.” Or as Slate put it that year: “It is the swingiest of swingers,” where any discussion of politics likely contained “the words ‘microcosm’ or ‘representativeness.’”
For a time, this reputation obscured Democratic dominance at the state level. John Danforth, a Missouri Republican who served in the U.S. Senate for nearly two decades, points out that before he entered politics in the late 1960s, all the state officers were Democrats, along with both U.S. senators, and Democrats dominated the state legislature. As recently as the 1990s, the decade Danforth retired, Democrats held the governorship and both houses of the state legislature nearly every year, and voted for Bill Clinton twice for president.
The Democratic collapse in the state came slowly, then suddenly, and the reasons people give vary. Missouri broke its president-choosing streak by voting twice against Barack Obama and has stayed Republican in presidential votes ever since. Ken Warren, a pollster at St. Louis University, believes race played a role in this but also notes that Obama eventually stopped campaigning in the state in 2008 after determining he didn’t need the electoral votes, and he didn’t personally return in 2012. In the same period, Democrats were getting further shellacked in a legislature where Republicans had taken control of both houses in 2003. (The state results came in tandem with the Democrats’ national shellacking in the 2010 midterms — a microcosm, if you will.)
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 executive director 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 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.”
A funny thing about politicians is how often they claim not to be politicians. In no other field do job applicants hold up their lack of experience and contempt for potential future colleagues as a key qualification. And yet, chatting with voters at a handful of Kunce events around Missouri this fall, it’s clear why he has picked this as part of his pitch. “If bullshit was music, then politicians would be a symphony orchestra,” a retired Boeing worker told me at a Kunce event for farmers in the rural town of Palmyra. “We are sick and tired of politicians coming to our community only when they want our votes,” a Gulf War veteran told Kunce during a Q&A session at a south St. Louis senior center. “It just upsets me.”
Kunce absorbs these kinds of comments affably; he’s quite cheerful for a guy trying to channel voter anger. He gives out high-fives freely and is an unapologetic nerd for the card game Magic: The Gathering. At the Palmyra farm, at the St. Louis senior center, at small businesses, voters tell him about their struggles in work or in health care or in getting access to loans, and if they’re not specifically saying “anti-monopoly” like Kunce does, they often hit on the idea that someone is wielding too much power and it isn’t them.
Kunce’s not-a-politician self-branding is at least somewhat credible if you leave aside his current campaign for federal office: He is nearly alone among the top contenders for the Senate seat, Democrat or Republican, never to have won an election. He did try to get elected once, at age 24, while attending law school at the University of Missouri and having reached the minimum possible age to run for state representative. That, too, was a long-shot race, for a Republican-held seat in his hometown of Jefferson City, and it was one he told the Yale Daily News he had been planning for three years. A friend described him to the paper as “very ambitious”; Kunce described himself as a “pretty conservative Democrat” who opposed abortion but supported stem-cell research. The paper pronounced him “hard to pin down.”
He lost. He joined the Marine Corps. He served deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and worked on arms-control negotiations at the Pentagon. He retired from active duty after 13 years to join a nonprofit, the American Economic Liberties Project, where he worked on antitrust issues in national security, first based in Washington and then in Missouri. He continues to serve in the Marine Corps Reserve. He told me he came to his worries about corporate power while working at the Pentagon and noticing how a lack of competition among defense contractors hobbled America’s negotiating power and destroyed incentives for companies to do better: DoD had no choice but to buy from Boeing, Kunce says, even when its planes were falling out of the sky. (Boeing is a major employer in the St. Louis area.) Six months after leaving the Pentagon in 2020, Kunce was running for office in Missouri again, this time aiming for national office.
His political positions have evolved since the last time he ran. He no longer describes himself as conservative and indeed has the backing of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, in addition to that of VoteVets — his two biggest endorsements to date. He’s declared himself in favor of Roe v. Wade and “their body, their choice.” He told me he ran to pursue more state education funding in 2006, when he was getting his law degree; now, his main issues are antitrust, corporate monopolies and the hope of “fundamentally changing who has power in this country,” as he puts it. He pushes policies to break up the likes of Facebook and “Big Ag” or “Big Pharma” giants; he would like to criminalize stock trading by members of Congress; and he wants to “Marshall Plan the Midwest” and reshore manufacturing jobs because “we don’t make shit in America anymore.”
Kunce’s politics are no less difficult to categorize than they were 15 years ago, however, and he resists categorizing them himself. 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.”
To the extent that Kunce’s brand of anti-politics plays, it also has limits. When confronted with other issues destined to play a big role in Missouri’s general election — immigration, say, or how schools teach kids about race — he can come across like a student who skipped that part of the reading, pivoting quickly back to the evils of corporate power. If you’re a voter concerned about the border crisis or worried about a possible leftward, racialized drift in public-school education, it’s not necessarily persuasive to hear that these are non-controversies ginned up by shadowy billionaires to distract and divide the country, which is how Kunce tends to deflect such questions.
Asked to weigh in on the results of the Virginia governor’s race, in which Republican Glenn Youngkin defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe in part due to parental frustration with school administrators, Kunce, a divorced father of two, stuck to this approach in a statement hitting at both sides. “Parents should have a say in their kids’ education,” he wrote via a spokesperson. “Anyone saying otherwise is nuts.” (McAuliffe had said in a debate that parents shouldn’t “be telling schools what they should teach.”) But Kunce also criticized “political elites and billionaires and the consultant class” who he said sometimes insert themselves into schools: “Their only goal is to divide us as a country; they don’t give a damn about our kids.”
The U.S. Senate is not going to be setting curricula for the state of Missouri, but Evans, the former state GOP chair who now lobbies on education issues, says “you’ve got to be on the right side of that issue” — which, in her view, means supporting parental involvement and school transparency about issues such as curriculum, hiring and spending — “or you’re just not going to have a chance.” She went on: “Being anti-corporate is very popular. But you can’t just [have] … that one issue.” Eric Schmitt, the GOP Senate candidate and Missouri attorney general, for one, is certainly seizing on education in what might be a sign of the campaign to come: He just sued a public school district to release “records related to critical race theory and anti-racist teaching,” though the district denies teaching CRT specifically.
Former Sen. Danforth’s critique of the race is more fundamental: He does not think populism is good for the country, regardless of whether a Democrat can win on a populist platform in a red state. An erstwhile mentor of Hawley’s, Danforth repented his support following Hawley’s objections to certifying Biden’s electoral victory on Jan. 6 and the young senator’s raised-fist salute to protesters prior to the Capitol riot. Danforth told me of Kunce that he had “never heard of him before.” But he believes populism is a “politics of grievance and resentment” that appeals to the worst in people. He said that if Missouri voters have to pick between Greitens and a Democratic Senate pursuing a Democratic agenda, “I think most people in our state would say that is not a good choice.”
This perceived tension was clear among the handful of Republican voters who showed up at the farm event in Palmyra, one of whom found Kunce’s answers on immigration and education unsatisfying but also said he didn’t know if he could vote for Greitens. Another, a man in a Missouri Soybean Association jacket, said he couldn’t vote for Greitens or McCloskey, the gun-toting lawyer, so Kunce was “looking better all the time.” But this was mainly a Democratic primary event, at a farm where a white pickup truck with a Jason Kander sticker sat parked next to the shed, and other voters told me that if any Democrat could flip the seat, it was Kunce, with his military background and his hostility to foreign ownership of Missouri farmland. (In 2013, the Republican state legislature lifted a ban on such ownership, and now the Chinese-owned company Smithfield owns tens of thousands of acres in Missouri. Kunce has likened the law change, facilitated in part by recipients of Smithfield’s political donations, to “treason.”) Among Democrats at the St. Louis senior center, Kunce also had an enthusiastic reception — up to a point. “You’ve got my vote!” one man said as he headed toward a cab.
Then he turned back with a follow-up question. “What’s your first name again?”