Like any challenger looking to unseat a U.S. senator, Jason Kander faces long odds. But the 33-year-old Afghanistan War veteran, who serves as Missouri’s secretary of state, also must buck a historic losing trend to defeat Republican Sen. Roy Blunt next year.
Only three people in 100 years have succeeded in winning Senates seat directly from the down-ballot office of secretary of state, although many have tried.
The last time it happened was two decades ago, when Democrat Max Cleland launched his campaign from the Georgia secretary of state’s office and was elected to the Senate in 1996.
The record of sitting secretaries of state in Senate races is so dismal, in fact, that political pundits have a name for it: “the secretary of state curse.”
Recent victims of the curse were two Democratic secretaries of state last year: Alison Lundergan Grimes, who failed to oust Sen. Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, and Natalie Tennant in West Virginia, who lost her bid for an open Senate seat to Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito.
Other prominent losers include Katherine Harris of Florida, who became a household name after overseeing the 2000 presidential election recount but went on to lose a Senate race six years later, and Trey Grayson of Kentucky, who was defeated by Rand Paul in a 2010 Republican Senate primary.
Kander, a Democrat from Kansas City, announced his intention in February to challenge Blunt, a first-term senator but longtime member of Congress from the Show-Me State.
Blunt was secretary of state in Missouri from 1985 to 1993, but he did not jump directly from that post to the Senate. He became a member of the U.S. House of Representatives first, a more common career trajectory for senators.
Three of the four former secretaries of state currently serving in the Senate — Blunt, Republican Dean Heller of Nevada and Democrat Sherrod Brown of Ohio — spent years in the House before being elected to the upper chamber. The fourth, Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia, was a governor before he became a senator.
Kander will have his work cut out for him to topple an incumbent Republican in a state that leans increasingly red. Blunt’s seat is considered “safe Republican,” according to the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report, which analyzes Senate races.
As of the end of March, Blunt had already compiled a $3 million campaign war chest. Kander raised $783,465 in the first quarter of this year
In addition to overcoming the ordinary obstacles of fundraising and name recognition, Kander will have to defy history, said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg & Gonzales report.
“There are many paths to the Senate, but being a secretary of state is usually not one of them,” Gonzales noted in Roll Call, a Capitol Hill publication.
Secretaries of state typically process election results and voter registration, and they handle legal filings by businesses and other administrative tasks. They “can look like attractive candidates because they are statewide elected officials, often without legislative records” for opponents to attack, Gonzales wrote.
Yet history shows that those advantages rarely result in victories at the federal level.
The long odds don’t worry Kander, who previously served as a state legislator in Missouri. In an interview, he said he was confident that his record had prepared him to continue serving Missourians as their senator.
“I’m proud of the way that I’ve run this office,” Kander said, pointing to his work to cut a million dollars from the budget and reduce red tape. Under his leadership, he said, the office also streamlined unnecessary paperwork and moved business filing online.
“Almost every Missourian interacts with our office in one way or another,” said Kander, who’s the youngest statewide officeholder in the country.
He isn’t the only secretary of state vying to break the curse in 2016.
So how does the curse apply to Hillary Clinton, you may ask?
The head of the U.S. Department of State is a Cabinet-level, diplomatic position that’s vastly different in scope and responsibilities from the secretary of state offices in Missouri and the other 49 states.
A high-visibility role, the federal position seems like a natural launching pad to the White House. And at one time, before primaries and caucuses, it was: Early U.S. secretaries of state who became president include Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and John Quincy Adams.
But no more. It’s been nearly 160 years since the last candidate who’d served as U.S. secretary of state won a presidential campaign.
To reach Lindsay Wise, send email to email@example.com. On Twitter: @lindsaywise.
A smart path to the Senate?
Only three sitting secretaries of state have been elected to the U.S. Senate since 1904:
– Max Cleland, Democrat from Georgia, in 1996.
– Alan J. Dixon, Democrat from Illinois, in 1980.
– Richard B. Stone, Democrat from Florida, in 1974.
Source: National Association of Secretaries of State