WARRENSBURG, Missouri—Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander burst onto the national stage for putting together an AR-15 blindfolded in an ad to defuse attacks that he was anti-gun.
He’s actually a better shot with a Beretta M9 service pistol.
Kander is a rare breed: a Democrat running on military service for Congress, in a state where most voters are Republicans. It highlights why the Democrats are continuing to spend resources in Missouri, even as it shifts money out of races with more conventional political candidates in Ohio and Florida—the Clinton campaign has said it will drop a half million dollars there, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has pledged $1.5 million on Kander’s behalf in the state.
Democrats hope that his particular set of skills—and the contrast between a former Army officer and a longtime politician—will attract enough voters to unseat veteran Missouri politician Roy Blunt, who has won every election he has contested since 1996.
“Sen. Blunt has sat in a lot of committee rooms where he has read information off a piece of paper… and that information eventually got to that paper… because somebody in a dangerous place went down a street or into a room and risked their life to get that information,” Kander told The Daily Beast in a recent interview. “I’m actually the guy who was on the street, or in the room.”
While he serves as a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Blunt is not a veteran. Not only that, The Kansas City Star reported that the senator received three Vietnam-era student draft deferments. Since Blunt’s wife, daughter, and son have been lobbyists, and 46 of Blunt’s former staff worked as lobbyists before or after working for him, Democrats have attacked him for being more comfortable with Washington insiders than with ordinary voters.
As a former Army intelligence officer, on the other hand, Kander can talk with ease to veterans, who represent half a million voters in the state, or one out of every 12 people. His status as a veteran forms the backbone of his campaign—and is a major reason why he is neck and neck with Blunt in the polls—the RealClearPolitics average has the incumbent senator up by just one percentage point (neither the Blunt campaign nor the National Republican Senatorial Committee returned requests for comment to discuss this race).
It’s a message echoed in a buzz-generating ad that dropped Monday, where his former commanding officer, a retired colonel, praised him for volunteering for tough assignments: “He’s a soldier, and he’s the kind of change we need in the Senate.”
“You have the fewest veterans in Congress since World War II,” Kander said, arguing that there were too few people in the nation’s capital who “have voluntarily been through something harder than a reelection campaign.”
His military service is at least partially the reason he is able to, as a Democrat, capitalize on the state’s pro-Trump sentiments. At 44 percent in two Missouri polls taken earlier this month, Kander has shown he has more support than Hillary Clinton, who the RealClearPolitics average has at 39.8 percent in the state—indicating that Kander’s base includes Trump supporters who are willing to vote for a Democrat like him.
“I understand why people, given the lack of authenticity in the national conversation, are willing to consider someone even when they don’t think they’re qualified to do the job, and that’s what’s happening with Donald Trump,” he said. “I am ready for the job and I represent the change people are looking for.”
In a plain, white-walled room at the University of Central Missouri, marked only with a few stray signs with his name and slogan—“#FixCongress”—Kander gathered a small group of veterans for a roundtable discussion earlier this month.
It becomes immediately clear why he has broad appeal, at least to this group: His banter hints at deep familiarity with jargon, inside jokes, and interservice rivalries few without military experience understand. It’s his way of signaling: I’m one of you.
“Gary, you’re in the Marines, as you remind me regularly,” the prior-service Army vet joked, during a whirlwind of questions about VA reform and the role of veterans in society. He spoke of how unique their common experience of being in the military was, and how sad it is that many people think of veterans firstly as a cause for charity, rather than something to be celebrated.
If elected to Congress, Kander would join a younger generation of Democrats on Capitol Hill that has served in the military before politics, including Army National Guardsman Tulsi Gabbard, former Marine Corps officer Seth Moulton, and Purple Heart recipient Tammy Duckworth.
“The Democratic Party has made a concerted effort to get combat vets to run for Congress because they understand vets make credible leaders,” said a senior official for a major veterans organization, who requested anonymity because the group had not endorsed in the Missouri Senate race. “What you’re seeing in Missouri is that those Republicans at the top of the ticket are not running the best campaigns… these dynamics are creating an opening for Kander, and I think he’s exploited it pretty well.”
His message is one of an outsider—he never misses a chance to mention that his opponent has been in office for nearly 20 years—who is bringing a fresh perspective to the Senate. In fact, at 35 years old, he is almost half the age of the 66-year-old Blunt. And Kander even self-identifies as a member of the “millennial generation.”
It’s not so much that the Trump crossover voters agree with what he believes on every issue, Kander contends, but that they’re looking for a fresh start and a way to express their frustration with Washington, D.C.
“People don’t need a candidate to agree with them on every issue. They want to know that the candidate is saying something they believe,” he said. He wanted to bring, as he described it, the “ethic of the military” to the Senate, that “the mission comes first”—away from the partisan bickering of the moment.
“Look, I did anti-corruption investigations in Afghanistan. Got to the state legislature and found that I was pretty discouraged to see there was plenty of anti-corruption work to do there too,” he quipped.
After seeing the corruption from Missouri to Afghanistan, what makes him think that a lone senator can, in the words of his slogan, #FixCongress?
“It starts with one,” he said.