Democrats look at Jason Kander and see a dreamboat millennial candidate.
A young father and Army vet who braved a tour in Afghanistan. A seemingly tireless campaigner willing to make those awkward calls asking for money. A bundle of energy controlled by a clear-eyed understanding that it takes hard work to win an election. Handy with a gun.
And while Washington party insiders talk giddily about an up-and-coming prospect, Kander paints himself as an outsider.
His patter on the campaign trail projects earnest sensibility and ambition. He promises to ditch the tit-for-tat pettiness that seems to define Capitol Hill. Putting him in the U.S. Senate, he argues, would usher in a centrist antidote to much that makes Washington a mess.
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“The problem,” the 35-year-old Missouri secretary of state says, “is that people will not sit down and talk with each other.”
In the Kander narrative, incumbent Sen. Roy Blunt represents much about what’s wrong with the old guard of politics. By Kander’s reckoning, Blunt has gone native inside the Beltway, beholden to K Street lobbyists, partial to the partisan over the practical.
Yet when Blunt played a part in a bipartisan deal in late September that kept the government running — people sat down and talked with each other — Kander found fault.
Congress never should have taken a seven-week break before the deal was cut, Kander said. He said voters should ding Blunt for the need for an 11th hour deal, not praise him for his role in brokering a compromise at the last minute.
“It’s Exhibit A of dysfunction in Washington,” Kander said.
One voter might think it’s about time that candidates such as Kander called out Congress for party-first grandstanding.
To another voter, the challenger’s attack on Blunt could sound naive about what it takes to bridge the chasms of blue and red America.
Kander’s path to the Senate started decidedly uphill. Formerly bellwether Missouri trends more Republican with nearly every election cycle. Blunt likely will finish the race with more money spent on his behalf, name recognition Kander can’t match and decades of press releases touting funding he’s won for this or that faction in the state.
Still, the challenger has raised more money than the political handicappers expected. And by the time summer turned to fall, polls showed Kander overcoming odds to put a scare into Republicans fearful of losing the Senate.
Kander grew up in Shawnee the son of two juvenile probation officers. His younger brother was adopted, and the family took in several troubled kids. He says his family’s example led him to public service.
A Jewish kid at a Catholic high school, he once fantasized about playing for the Royals. But he seemed to stop growing when the other kids kept getting bigger and faster. So he left the Bishop Miege baseball team behind after his sophomore year and shifted to the debate team.
He was a third-year senior studying political science at American University when 9/11 happened. Before, Kander said, he’d vaguely contemplated a military career. After the terror attacks, he said he had “the same sense of wanting to do something that we all felt.”
His enlistment had to wait until after knee surgery, but as a law student at Georgetown University he enrolled in ROTC. “I thought of myself as a soldier who was going to law school.”
He returned to the Kansas City area, settling in on the Missouri side where a Democrat might expect more of a future. He began to practice law and, along with his wife, Diana, circulate with other young Democrats. He was a founder of the Heartland Democrats of America political club. All the while, he carried out the weekend and other duties of an Army reservist.
Off to war
Kander served on active duty first at a base in Arizona, and then at Central Command’s intelligence division in Florida. It was from there he deployed to Afghanistan for about four months in late 2006 and 2007.
In an interview, Kander stressed that he was never involved in firefights nor came under mortar or rocket fire. Rather, his time as an intelligence officer largely consisted of vetting local Afghan leaders to identify potential corruption and whom U.S. forces could trust.
His military records say his work “resulted in arresting enemies and saving lives.” Those records also confirm that the second lieutenant was rare among officers for volunteering as an extra gun on convoys.
His time in a war zone, he says on the campaign trail, left him frustrated with the country’s political leadership. Kander’s deployment came as the Pentagon stretched personnel and materiel between Afghanistan and Iraq, where the U.S. occupation faced growing insurgency. That sometimes meant he traveled from place to place in an SUV rather than an armored vehicle.
“They (politicians) had made our maneuvers more dangerous,” he told supporters at the opening of his Kansas City campaign office. “And that’s why I came back and started running for office.”
Except that his political ambitions had taken hold before he ever left for Kabul.
“He was an up-and-comer,” said Jolie Justus, now a member of the Kansas City Council. In 2006, she had come to know Kander — he would bring her back a desert spider encased in Lucite as an Afghan souvenir — while she was running for the Missouri Senate.
“You could tell he was absolutely interested in politics and a career in it,” Justus said.
If he leaves voters thinking that running for office came from an epiphany in Afghanistan, Kander said that’s not the impression he means to give.
No doubt, his political career was ready to launch. After his return from overseas, he was running for the Missouri House.
“He was a campaign machine,” said Justus, who supported Kander’s opponent in his 2008 primary. “The guy knocked on every door of every registered voter, and many more than once. … He is a very hard campaigner.”
That campaign elbow grease won him two terms in the House. He introduced ethics reforms that were eventually absorbed in a Republican bill and were ultimately shot down by the courts. Kander also focused on veterans’ issues, human trafficking and domestic violence.
Kevin McManus overlapped with Kander as a fellow Democrat in the House, a place where their party was so outnumbered that they could hope to, at best, tweak bills slightly.
“Jason was good about working hard and trying to find some way to work with people he disagreed with,” McManus said.
When in September 2011 then-Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan said she wouldn’t run for another term, Kander announced that day that he’d try for the job. The office acts as state record keeper and elections chief, a job prized by politicians mostly for how it boosts name recognition without much chance for controversy.
Kander appealed to voters with a theme that has marked his political career: This is a guy from Generation 9/11 , a veteran who makes sure voters know about his military service.
“It became real when the medics over there (in Afghanistan) told me to write my blood type on my boots,” Kander tells the camera in a 30-second spot that defined his secretary of state campaign. “To me, leadership has always been about doing what’s right. Because when you’ve had to write your blood type on your boots, you aren’t afraid to make the right calls.”
It’s arguably a stretch to suggest the know-your-blood-type courage of a soldier is needed to be secretary of state. But he was a subset of the less than 1 percent of Americans who serve in uniform and a smaller subset deployed to war zones. Veteran bona fides are a ballot box boost that Kander has consistently made full use of.
He often traveled the state during that race with Stephen Webber, a Marine veteran who arrived in the Missouri House the same year.
Kander edged out Republican Shane Schoeller by just over 1 percent of the vote.
In statewide office, he’s pushed for changes in Missouri’s lax ethic laws, although the secretary of state has little legislative influence, particularly if he’s a Democrat when Republicans run the General Assembly. He’s cut the secretary of state budget and made changes he says make it easier for people in the military to vote while on overseas deployments.
His ascent in Missouri politics drew the notice of national Democrats, eager to recruit veterans as candidates, especially those who can raise money.
“He’s not an outsider to Missouri politics, but he’s an outsider to” Washington, said Robynn Kuhlmann, a political science professor at the University of Central Missouri. “He’s got the military thing, which plays well in this state.”
Early on among Senate challengers, Kander stood out nationally, said Montana’s Sen. Jon Tester, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. The committee has pledged at least $3.5 million in support of Kander’s race and lists it among the top handful of contests that could decide whether Republicans or Democrats control the next Senate.
Kander, Tester said, takes to politics instinctively.
“He does the work,” Tester said. “(He) thinks about what he’s doing and how to maximize his time. He wasn’t taught that, he just knew that.”
Doing that work also means asking for money.
“It’s something that people don’t like to talk about,” said Justus, who admires Kander both as a candidate and public servant. “If you want to get your message out, you need to raise the money to pay for the mailer and the commercial.”
For all his outsider appeal, Kander already counts some Washington lobbyists among his donors.
Despite that, Kander has pounded Blunt for his lobbyist connections, including having members of his immediate family in the influence business.
The challenger promises a different brand of politics — Missouri-focused, middle class-oriented and middle of the road. He insists he’d not be beholden to his party and is willing to take political risks the way longtime officeholders won’t.
His military service, Kander said, gave him an appreciation for what’s at stake in politics. He said it means he’ll go with conviction over convenience.
Man in the middle
But pressed for issues that reflect that political risk taking, he cites two rather conventional positions:
Kander notes that he was early among Democratic challengers to oppose the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Yet Hillary Clinton also has come out against it, and labor unions crucial to any Democrat winning Missouri have long opposed such free trade deals.
Next he mentioned his opposition to voter photo ID laws. Republicans argue such laws are long overdue protection against voter fraud. Democrats counter that the poor and elderly don’t have easy access to state-certified identification that most voters take for granted. Kander argues those restriction can also make it hard for deployed troops to vote.
Kander splits from Democratic orthodoxy in a handful of ways that might appeal to moderates. He opposes the seven-nation deal that would lift sanctions to end Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. He backs a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Elsewhere, he’s projected himself as a moderate in tune with Missouri’s electorate.
Kander said he supports tighter rules on water quality, but objects to how the Environmental Protection Agency has moved forward without congressional dictates. He’d give people with student loan debt the opportunity to refinance the loans.
He supports immigration reform, tied to border security, that would give some people who came to the country illegally a path to permanent residency in the U.S.
Nearly always, Kander the candidate wants to turn the conversation to Jason the soldier. In a video that kicked off his Senate campaign, Kander sat in a terminal at Kansas City International airport talking about leaving there for his Afghanistan deployment and his family’s “calling” to community and public service.
In another spot, again built around his Army resume, he swung back at attacks from Blunt and the National Rifle Association over voting for gun background checks.
Kander enthused fellow Democrats by wearing a blindfold and reciting his script while assembling an AR-15 military-style rifle borrowed from his brother.
“In the state legislature, I supported Second Amendment rights,” he says to the camera. “I also believe in background checks, so the terrorists can’t get their hands on one of these. I approve this message” — final, dramatic click of the rifle — “ ’cause I’d like to see Sen. Blunt do this.”
Lindsay Wise of the McClatchy Washington bureau contributed to this report.