The Populist, Millennial Veteran Who Wants to Turn Missouri Blue

PETERSBURG Lucas Kunce, a Marine veteran, populist, and Democratic contender for a U.S. Senate seat in this very Republican state, is explaining Missouri voters by way of a story about socks.

He says that Kunce does not come from money, and that it will get you in a lot of trouble. He tells people on the campaign trail that he was raised in a working-class neighborhood in Jefferson City, Missouri, where medical bills related to his little sister's heart condition bankrupted his family. Every year before school started, he and his siblings would pick out new shoes from Payless. A source of serious pride for a teenaged boy in the late 1990s, Kunce got a pair of white Reeboks. He is hoping someone will notice him. A boy who was wealthier took note. Did you see Kunce's new shoes?

The boy continued. You can tell how poor someone is when they get a new pair of shoes.

Kunce spent the rest of the day trying to hide his socks, stuffing the tops into his shoes and walking on fabric. He was working so hard to be cool. His parents worked so hard to make sure he had that. He remembers the feeling of utter powerlessness.

In late October, Lucas Kunce, the Democratic Senate candidate, spoke with voters in the northeast Missouri farm town of Palmyra.

Kunce thinks that a state where 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. Kunce, a tall, long-limbed 39-year-old who favors hoodies and talks with his hands, is running for a seat Republicans have held since 1987. Many people around the state feel the same powerlessness he did as a teenager, because they are part of a system that insists on keeping them down no matter how hard they try.

Kunce is a democrat, but he prefers to call himself a populist, and he is hoping a campaign against big corporations and corrupt politicians will have enough appeal across partisan and racial divides. Nine months ahead of the 2020 primary, he has attracted national attention and cable-news spots for his critique of the war in Afghanistan, where he deployed twice. Kunce outraised his opponents in the last quarter. Even if the issue is war in the Middle East, agriculture in the Midwest or anything else, his appeal to unity is this: Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, you are all getting screwed.

Kunce is running as a populist Democrat for a Senate seat that Republicans have held since 1987.

He can sound like Josh Hawley, the Republican who won a Senate seat in Missouri with a similar message. Kunce considers the senator to be a fake populist, pointing to his upbringing and votes to confirm corporate judges, as well as the fact that he was not in the Senate when Neil Gorsuch was confirmed. Kunce doesn't want to start on Hawley's recent comments decrying video games and the state of American masculinity. It can be difficult to tell the two apart in rhetoric. Both men blame multinational corporations, Big Tech, China and elites for what ails America in general and Missouri in particular. Kunce emphasizes that he did so with financial aid, though both of them went to Yale. The office of Hawley declined to comment on the story.

Even though Kunce lost to Greitens by a wide margin, he finds that encouraging because many Missourians don't know who he is. Greitens, who resigned to avoid impeachment in a scandal involving an allegedly coerced sexual encounter with his hairdresser, denies any wrongdoing, and struck a deal with the prosecutor to drop criminal charges at the time. The prospect of a Greitens primary nomination has Republicans anxious and Democrats excited. CNN has put the Missouri Senate race on its list of the top 10 seats most likely to flip in the next two years, despite the fact that Democrats are expected to do badly in the election.

The Kunce race is a test case for the Democrats, who are still struggling to absorb the lessons of Trump's appeal and reverse their losses among working-class and rural voters. It is also an experiment in re-energizing political populism for Democrats after the near-takeover of the GOP. 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 that the same anti-corporate message can win over Harley-riding Trump voters in southern Missouri and Black retirees in south St. Louis, because the concerns of the working class, white or Black are essentially the same. He says that the working class is the working class. There is a lack of power for normal everyday people and a system that makes them fight each other.

Missouri is an especially revealing place for this experiment, as a former swing state that used to electing moderates on the left and right, now has a Republican majority in every branch of state government and holds eight of the 10 seats in the congressional delegation. Kunce says that a win here in Missouri will change everything. It shows that we can have fun with the working people. Kunce's political fate will show whether an anti-elite economic message will be enough to win them back, as the state's recent political history shows a story of Democrats alienating former supporters through a combination of ideological mismatch and grassroots neglect.

Missouri was a famous political bellwether that picked the winner in every presidential election but one, and that was when Adlai Stevenson beat Eisenhower. The Chicago Tribune called it a mirror for the nation at the end of the period. Slate said it was the swingiest of swingers, where any discussion of politics likely contained the words "microcosm" or "representativeness".

Despite a near-Republican takeover of Missouri politics, the electorate has sent some conflicting signals that Kunce holds up as evidence that the state isn't as red as it looks.

This reputation masked Democratic dominance at the state level. John Danforth, a Republican who served in the U.S. Senate for nearly two decades, said that before he entered politics, all the state officers were Democrats. Democrats held the governorship and both houses of the state legislature for nearly every year in the 1990s, and voted for Bill Clinton twice for president.

The collapse of the Democratic Party in the state was gradual and varied in its reasons. Missouri broke its president-choosing streak when it voted against Barack Obama twice. Ken Warren believes that race played a role in this, but also that Obama stopped campaigning in the state in 2008 because he didn't need the electoral votes. Republicans took control of both houses of the legislature in 2003 and in the same period, Democrats were getting further decimated. The state results came in tandem with the Democrats' national debacle in the 2010 elections.

Kunce says that the working class is the working class. There is a lack of power for normal everyday people and a system that makes them fight each other.

According to political operatives I spoke to, the Democrats were losing in Missouri because they weren't as aggressive in their campaigning as the Republicans were. The pro-gun, anti-abortion Missouri Democrat voter of the past is now a Republican. Steele Shippy, a senior strategist for Republican state Senate President Dave Schatz, who is also vying for Blunt's seat, says that national Democrats have abandoned Missouri. 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. The current chair of the Missouri Democratic Party concedes that the party's infrastructure is not what it should be.

Clinton was routed by nearly 20 points by the state that supported Trump in the election. Trump voters were willing to vote for Democrats. The year was also when Kunce, a Democratic veteran with a knack for media, 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." In the Kansas City suburbs and even rural areas, the Missouri Democratic Party's Butler recalled seeing Trump and Kander signs. I was told that people were trying to say that Trump voters wouldn't vote Democrat. That is not true in Missouri. Without Trump on the ballot, Kander might have won the election, as hundreds of thousands of Trump voters voted for him.

Kunce holds up as evidence that the state isn't as red as it looks, despite the fact that the electorate has sent some other signals. Medical marijuana, Medicaid, and the repeal of a right-to-work law have all been passed by Missourians. The most recent St. Louis University poll found that 73 percent of Missourians think the economy is not in good shape, which may be an advantage for Kunce. The state government should ban abortions after eight weeks of pregnancy and critical race theory should not be taught in schools, according to a majority of people. The voter picture is mixed, with voters evenly split on how they rate the national response and mostly approve of their state and local response. Republican Senate candidates have spoken against vaccine mandates, but Kunce says he rarely hears voters mention Covid. The GOP seems to benefit from populist rhetoric, as evidenced by the fact that Hawley beats Blunt by double digits.

Josh Hawley, the junior senator from Missouri, joined the treasury secretary and the governor at a Trump rally.

This is all before you can even think about whether Kunce can pull 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 lost her seat in the next cycle. Republicans in Missouri and across the country worry that Greitens could put the seat in play for Democrats because of the scandal that he attributes to a George Soros-funded prosecutor and the swamp. 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 asked Greitens if he was right to worry that he was Todd Akin. Jean Evans, the former executive director of the Missouri Republican Party, isn't sure if that's true. If Kunce can keep the race local and come across a weak opponent, he may have a chance. She doesn't think Greitens will win the primary. She says that if he does it will be an opening for a Democrat. The Greitens campaign did not respond to the request for comment.

Even if they are not yet willing to support the Kunce versus Sifton race in their own primary field, the national Democrats think they have an opening. The wide and wild GOP primary field, which includes Greitens, Eric Schmitt, and Mark McCloskey, is what they are happy to point to. The state Senate President jumped into the race last week. Missouri could be a major defensive liability for the Republicans, given the vicious and expensive primary they had on the right, according to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.

Politicians often claim not to be politicians. Job applicants hold up their lack of experience and contempt for potential future colleagues as a key qualification. It is clear why he picked this as part of his pitch, as he has been talking with voters at a number of Kunce events around Missouri. A retired Boeing worker told me at a Kunce event for farmers that politicians would be a symphony orchestra if bullshit was music. A Gulf War veteran told Kunce that they were tired of politicians coming to their community only when they wanted their votes. It just upsets me.

James Tucker expressed frustration about politicians not following through on campaign promises in Black communities during Kunce's visit.

Kunce is quite cheerful for a guy trying to channel voter anger. He is a nerd for the card game Magic: The Gathering and gives out high-fives. At the senior center in St. Louis, voters tell Kunce about their struggles in work, health care, and getting access to loans, if they aren't specifically saying "anti-monopoly" like Kunce does.

Kunce is currently running for federal office, but he is the only one of the top candidates for the Senate seat who has never won an election. He tried to get elected at the age of 24 while attending law school at the University of Missouri, but he was too young to run for state representative. He told the Yale Daily News that he had been planning for three years to run for the Republican seat in Jefferson City. A friend described him to the paper as ambitious, while Kunce said he was a pretty conservative Democrat who opposed abortion but supported stem-cell research. The paper said he was hard to pin down.

He lost. He joined the Marines. He worked on arms-control negotiations at the Pentagon after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. After 13 years in the military, he retired and joined the American Economic Liberties Project, where he worked on antitrust issues in national security. He is still in the Marine Corps Reserve. He told me that he was worried about corporate power when he worked at the Pentagon, and that the Department of Defense had no choice but to buy from Boeing. Boeing is a major employer. After leaving the Pentagon in 2020, Kunce ran for office in Missouri again, this time for national office.

Kunce met with the owner of Sophia's Crowns, a flower shop.

Since the last time he ran, his political positions have changed. He has two of his biggest endorsements to date, VoteVets and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and he no longer describes himself as conservative. He supports the right of people to choose their body. He told me that when he got his law degree, he wanted to pursue more state education funding, but now his main issues are antitrust, corporate monopolies and the hope of changing who has power in this country. He wants to break up the likes of Facebook and Big Ag, criminalize stock trading by members of Congress, and reshore manufacturing jobs because we don't make shit.

Kunce resists categorizing his politics, even though they are more difficult to categorize than they were 15 years ago. He was asked by a voter at the senior center who would be his best ally in the Senate, and he only said Josh Hawley. Kunce believes that the Centrist Democrats are blocking needed investments in the country. We spent $6.4 trillion trying to build up other countries. D.C. can't spend half of that on jobs and infrastructure here at home. He would vote for the bill in the Senate, though he would want to make sure the funds weren't captured by Wall Street or monopolies. Kunce was asked if he was on the side of progressive or establishment Democrats. He likes to say that he is not about left-right or top-bottom. He wouldn't or couldn't name a single serving member of the House or Senate he admires or believes he resembles, and he wouldn't follow Washington, D.C.'s personality closely. He goes all the way back to Harry Truman, a Missouri Democrat who tried to get universal health care and was pilloried for it.

At the event in Palmyra, Kunce emphasized that he is not a politician, and that he has never won an election, though he tried once before.

The limits of Kunce's brand of anti-politics are being considered. He can come across like a student who skipped part of the reading when confronted with other issues that will play a big role in Missouri's general election. It is not persuasive to hear that these are non-controversies ginned up by shadowy billionaires to distract and divide the country, if you are a voter concerned about the border crisis or worried about a possible leftward, racialized drift in public-school education.

Kunce, a divorced father of two, stuck to his guns in a statement hitting at both sides of the debate, after he was asked to weigh in on the results of the Virginia governor's race. He wrote that parents should have a say in their children's education. Anyone saying otherwise is crazy. In a debate, McAuliffe said that parents shouldn't be telling schools what to teach. Kunce said that the only goal of the political elites and billionaires and the consultant class is to divide us as a country.

Evans, the former state GOP chair who now lobbies on education issues, says that you have to be on the right side of an issue if you want to support it. Being anti-corporate is popular. You can't just have that one issue. Eric Schmitt, the GOP Senate candidate and Missouri attorney general, 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.

Kunce, who is pictured on the farm in Palmyra, basically says no when asked if he is on the side of progressive or establishment Democrats.

Even if a Democrat can win on a populist platform in a red state, he doesn't think populism is good for the country. After Hawley objected to certifying Biden's electoral victory, his mentor, the former mentor of Hawley, repented his support. I was told by Danforth that he had never heard of Kunce. He believes that populism is a politics of grievance and resentment that appeals to the worst in people. He said that most people in Missouri would not vote for Greitens if they had to.

One of the few Republican voters who showed up at the farm event in Palmyra found Kunce's answers on immigration and education unsatisfactory but also said he didn't know if he could vote for Greitens. Kunce was looking better all the time because he couldn't vote for Greitens or McCloskey, the gun-toting lawyer, according to another man. At the farm where the white pickup truck with the Kander sticker sat next to the shed, 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. The Republican state legislature lifted a ban on such ownership in 2013). Kunce likened the law change to treason. Kunce had an enthusiastic reception from the Democrats at the senior center. One man said that he had his vote.

He asked a follow-up question. What is your first name?

An earlier version of the story implied that Sen. Josh Hawley voted to confirm Neil Gorsuch, but he was not in the Senate at the time. The incorrect title was given to Jean Evans.

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