Missouri is, decidedly, a red state.
It’s been years since the Show-Me state elected a Democrat statewide. And when Sen. Josh Hawley (R) is up for re-election in 2024, likely boosted by the headwinds of a presidential cycle, most would figure he’ll be in fine shape.
But Lucas Kunce—a Democrat, marine veteran, and attorney—has a different perspective. And he’s trying to get others to join in.
Like a number of Democrats before him, Kunce is running as an underdog candidate, trying to flip a red-state seat blue. He thinks a grassroots, populist approach can revitalize the Democratic Party in Missouri, betting his working-class background will connect with voters who’ve felt disenchanted by politicians.
Just months ago, Missouri Democrats lost their 2022 Senate bid by double digits. But in the 2024 cycle, Kunce argues, things could play out differently.
He says it comes down to him—and the other guy, too.
“The difference is Josh Hawley and me, right? Like, the contrast I bring to him is so stark and so powerful, that it's something people will like,” Kunce said.
That argument encapsulates much of Kunce’s bid so far. He launched his campaign on Jan. 6 with an ad showing footage of Hawley running from rioters in the Capitol on Jan. 6 two years prior. His Twitter is filled with anti-Hawley tweets, hitting the senator on his big tech policies, consulting background and more.
Even in an interview with The Daily Beast last week, almost all of Kunce’s answers came back to Hawley in some form—even ones about his fundraising strategy and whether he’d identify as a progressive or moderate. (For the record, he says it’s neither.)
“For me, politics isn't left, right. For me, it's—it's bottom versus top. And so for me, it's going against the massive corporations that have too much power. It's going against the political class that kind of controls everything and leaves the rest of us just scrambling,” Kunce said, noting Americans’ frustration with corruption in Congress.
Then he slipped Hawley in.
“Josh Hawley, he sees people are upset and his solutions are just so fake,” Kunce added.
In another question asking about Kunce’s approach to populism, he described it as “taking power back for everyday people,” before comparing it to the notion of Hawley’s brand of being a populist, too.
“Josh Hawley, the media has given him this label of a populist, and he probably embraces it because it's the exact opposite of what he is. Like, he doesn't care about power for everyday people. He takes it away from us,” Kunce said.
But perhaps hitting on Hawley so directly is the point of it all.
Hawley is a freshman. He beat Democrat Claire McCaskill in 2018 by 5.8 points. And he did receive pushback to his Jan. 6 response after footage showed him running away, given that he was photographed raising a fist in solidarity with protestors outside the Capitol before they actually breached the building.
Democrats like Kunce think that leaves a sort of overton window—an idea that Hawley is a weakness for Republicans in the state, and that Democrats can win if they exploit it.
“My goal is to knock Josh Hawley out of the U.S. Senate. I think I'm the most qualified person to do that,” Kunce said.
But following a trendline of Democratic politics, Kunce could face some hurdles in generating the sort of national enthusiasm that would help fund an underdog bid like his. In 2016, Jason Kander garnered widespread enthusiasm and donations while running to flip Sen. Roy Blunt’s seat. Kander was also a veteran with the sort of everyman appeal. But he fell short by just under three points.
Voters—and donors—tend to remember letdowns.
After Amy McGrath had Democrats believing she could beat Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) in Kentucky, only to come up well short, the party largely wrote off their 2022 Senate race in the state. After North Carolina Democrat Cal Cunningham’s Senate bid had a spectacular meltdown in 2020, 2022 Democratic nominee Cheri Beasley saw only a fraction of the fundraising he did. And so on.
Then there’s the fact that Senate Democrats will be up against an incredibly difficult map in 2024. They’ll be defending swing-state seats in Michigan, Arizona and Ohio, while also defending their red-state seats in Montana and West Virginia, too. It’s no small task—and it will be expensive. Democrats’ national campaign arms especially will be faced with tough questions on where to put their limited dollars. And as a general rule, incumbents tend to get first priority.
In a statement, Hawley’s team appeared to allude to the role fundraising could play in the race.
“In the Senate, Josh has fought for working class families by taking on big and powerful forces. He succeeded and now the big guys want to get back at him. That’s why we fully expect the Democrat nominee, whoever it is, to be a woke activist that raises tens of millions of dollars to try and buy Missouri’s senate seat,” Hawley spokesperson Kyle Plotkin said in a statement.
But if Senate Democrats do build up an appetite for an offensive play, Missouri would likely be their closest thing to a pickup opportunity.
Texas is on the map, too, which has been a source of much Democratic wishcasting in recent cycles. But with Beto O’Rourke seemingly tapped out, and multiple rounds of hype faded out, it’s difficult to tell whether the state can capture the same energy this go around.
Kunce would still need to win the Democratic primary. At least one other Democrat, December Harmon, has hopped in the race for Senate. She describes herself as an “extreme leftist” and does not seem adamant on connecting her brand to Hawley. Instead, she’s hoping to tackle “Nazis in Congress.”
Kunce also ran in 2022, but he did not win the Democratic nomination. Instead, Anheuser Busch heiress Trudy Busch Valentine, who was able to self-fund much of her campaign, edged him out by about five points before going on to lose the general election to Republican Eric Schmitt by more than 13 points.
National Democratic campaign arms did not heavily invest in the race then, even when it was an open seat.
Kunce did note, however, that Missouri is not an especially expensive state to run in. It’s geographically manageable for candidates hoping to crisscross the state and has limited media markets, and he expressed confidence that he’ll be able to raise enough to be competitive.
On the flip side, it does appear Republicans’ national campaign arm has some interest in knocking Kunce down. Earlier this month, the National Republican Senatorial Committee shared a video from the Washington Free Beacon that questioned whether Kunce switches his accent to sound more southern when running for Senate.
Kunce said that’s just proof Republicans are worried.
“They're scared. They know that he's weak. They know that people here don't know him and if they do, they don't like him. They see his numbers. And they know the contrast I provide against and they know how hard that's going to be to beat. They saw what Jason Kander did in 2016, against a much less vulnerable candidate,” Kunce said.
Kander declined a request to discuss Kunce’s bid and, more broadly, Democratic chances of actually gaining traction in Missouri. “I think in a few months I’ll be ready to weigh in on those questions,” Kander said.
NRSC spokesman Phil Letsou told The Daily Beast in a statement, “If Lucas Kunce’s aspiration is to follow in the footsteps of renowned loser Jason Kander, we welcome that.”
It’s still early in the cycle. Missouri politicos note that anything could happen. And some seem to get Kunce’s argument off the bat that Hawley might be more vulnerable than the rest.
But still, it doesn’t appear that Democrats writ large are ready to bank on it—yet..
“I think they're right, that if there is a candidate that is perhaps a little bit more vulnerable, it's Josh Hawley,” said Daniel Ponder, a political science professor at Drury University in Missouri, before adding that’s a “very different thing than saying, you know, they have a good chance to win.”
“Something weird would have to happen,” Ponder said.