Jason Kander stepped onto the statewide political stage last year a virtual unknown outside Kansas City.
Some 90,000 miles on the campaign trail and $1.6 million raised from thousands of donors later, he squeaked out a narrow statewide victory this week to become Missouri’s next secretary of state.
In doing so, the 31-year old Democrat also became something else: A rising star in Show Me State politics and a potential power broker in Kansas City.
“He’s definitely on a rocket ship,” said veteran Republican campaign strategist Jeff Roe. “He managed to go from a small, urban seat in the legislature to an important statewide office during a tough election year. There are a lot of threats on the Democratic ticket, but I think he’s at or near the top.”
Mike Talboy, a Kansas City Democrat and former Missouri House minority leader, said Kander’s campaign proves that “the sky’s the limit for him politically.”
“He’s impressive on the stump, raised a ton of money and won a race that was a tough, hard-fought battle, which wins instant credibility,” Talboy said. “I don’t think it would be appropriate to talk about what’s next for him yet, since he hasn’t even started his new job. … But I’m excited to see what he’s able to accomplish.”
Whether by design or by happenstance, the young politician’s dossier oozes ambition. He’s a lawyer who volunteered for the Army reserves after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He would ultimately deploy to Afghanistan in 2006 as an intelligence officer.
It’s safe to say few people strive to grow up to be secretary of state — a sort of record-keeper-in-chief. Yet the office is an ideal way to make a politician known across the state, and it’s a convenient staging ground for the next campaign.
Robin Carnahan, who decided not to run for re-election, leaves after having used the position as a springboard for a U.S. Senate campaign. It was a stop on the ladder for Roy Blunt on his rise to the Senate, for Matt Blunt on way to becoming governor and before them for future governor Warren Hearnes.
Kander wasted little time jumping into the race last year after fellow Democrat Carnahan announced that she would not seek a third term. Within 30 minutes, Kander formally declared his candidacy and in less than a week raised $75,000. He quickly hustled together a long list of endorsements that probably scared off any potential Democratic rivals for the nomination.
When all the dust settled, he prevailed Tuesday night by just 1.3 percent over Republican Shane Schoeller.
“It was a really risky move,” said Steve Glorioso, a longtime Democratic consultant from Kansas City. “He is certainly ambitious, which is not a fault. It’s an attribute.”
For his part, Kander says he is focused on the office he just won, adding that anyone who has their eye on the next campaign “probably isn’t going to do the job well.”
He says he’s humbled by the expectations.
“It’s really flattering,” he said.
His first priority after assuming office will be to push lawmakers to enact comprehensive campaign finance and ethics reform, he said. It’s an issue he made the cornerstone of his campaign, and one he has championed in the legislature.
Earlier this year, the state Supreme Court struck down a 2010 law tightening campaign finance rules over a procedural error in how the bill was originally passed. Kander said he hopes lawmakers can re-establish those reforms, and go even further. He points out that Missouri is the only state that allows lawmakers to accept both unlimited lobbyist gifts and unlimited campaign donations.
“Clean elections don’t start on Election Day,” he said. “The true fraud in our elections is our campaign finance system. It’s broken and it needs to be fixed.”
He also looks to focus on the office’s business services division.
“When there is a new entrepreneur or small business, my office will know early in the process because they file their paperwork with us,” Kander said. “We can do more to connect them with resources in their community to help them prosper and avoid pitfalls, and we can do it without any additional taxpayer money.”
The secretary of state’s office never used to garner much attention, Glorioso said. But with the proliferation of ballot initiatives in Missouri, and high-profile controversies in other states over voter access, the office has taken on a new significance.
Kander becomes the chief elections officer in Missouri. The office also oversees signature verification for initiative petitions and approves the summaries voters see on ballots.
“Whether we have fair and impartial language,” Glorioso said, “can almost predetermine the outcome.”
And how Kander performs in his new job could determine if it marks the peak, or simply a plateau, in his career.