Missouri Democrat Jason Kander spent this week knocking on voters’ doors, shaking hands, giving speeches and snapping selfies with eager young campaign volunteers. In Georgia.
He was in Atlanta on the last leg of a cross-country tour, the sort that tells the political cognoscenti that this is an up-and-comer to be watched closely.
But this is a guy who’s never held an office higher than secretary of state in Missouri. He narrowly lost a winnable Senate campaign last year. He currently holds no political office, and the Kander Political Action Committee is dormant. He says he’s dedicated to his current job advocating for voters’ rights as the head of Let America Vote, a nonprofit he founded that primarily helps Democrats.
In the past month, Kander has spoken to Democrats in New Hampshire, visited with the party faithful in Iowa, and canvassed for Georgia House candidate Jon Ossoff. He also made appearances in Massachusetts, Arizona, Kentucky and Utah.
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What is Jason Kander up to?
The telltale signs of national ambition are hardly subtle.
Kander’s Twitter feed — followed by more than 162,000 people — blasts out videos and photos of the lanky Army veteran, 36, his shirt sleeves rolled up, looking every bit the part of a political candidate. He has a contributor contract with CNN, and the Beltway-based Politico recently called him the “hottest star in Democratic politics.”
His campaign quietly formed that political action committee after the election to eventually raise and spend money for fellow Democrats.
Kander has been asked so many times about his future that his answers are well-rehearsed: He’s humbled so many Democrats across the country are asking him to speak, and he’s busy promoting his voting-rights group.
He insists any other ambition isn’t a priority — for now.
“If I’m good at protecting elections, then maybe one day I’ll be in one,” he said in Georgia.
Even his voting rights group has a political tinge. It opposes requirements, for instance, for photo IDs. The success of the group would bolster Democrats at the polls, because their supporters are more easily tripped up by such rules, and hurt Republicans.
Democrats who know Kander well say what he wants is a national profile and a lead role in reshaping the ailing party.
That’s a significant shift for Kander, who didn’t seem too eager to associate himself with 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Clinton or the national party organization during his Senate run. He skipped last year’s Democratic National Convention.
“I think his goal right now is to create a national profile and within six months of the election, I think he’s done that,” said Jack Cardetti, a Jefferson City-based political consultant who advised Kander on his 2012 campaign for secretary of state.
“He has a seat at the table when it comes to the future of the Democratic Party.”
Kander’s loss last year to Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., has an upside, said Josh Earnest, President Barack Obama’s former press secretary.
“There’s a benefit to not being number 97 or 99 on the seniority ladder in the U.S. Senate” — especially when the Republican president isn’t likely to sign many Democrat-sponsored bills into law, Earnest said.
At the head of his own nonprofit, and in his new role as chairman of the DNC’s committee on voting rights, Kander “doesn’t have a lot of constraints,” Earnest said. “And he can measure success in ways other than legislation.”
John Hancock, a former Missouri Republican chairman, scoffed at the idea of Kander going places nationally.
“I think the level of excitement that the Democrats are expressing about Jason Kander,” he said, “is a startling example of how thin a bench that party has in national American politics today.”
Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Missouri, said that Kander has “caught the attention of a lot of national Democrats as somebody they would like to groom.”
Timing complicates his ability to use that support as a springboard for higher office.
Kander lives in a House district occupied by former Kansas City Mayor Emanuel Cleaver, 72, who hasn’t indicated any interest in retirement.
Missouri's Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill is up for re-election next year, but Kander quickly dismissed rumors he might challenge her in a primary.
Kander could challenge Republican Gov. Eric Greitens in 2020, Squire said, or wait five and half years to make another run at Blunt’s seat.
He also could be angling for an appointment to a future Democratic administration, if the party wins back the White House in 2020.
“I don’t know if there’s a clear path for him to get elected to anything in Missouri at the moment, but I think national Democrats look at him as somebody who has prospects,” Squire said.
Embracing the party
Kander likes to tell Democrats on his travels that he didn’t come within three points of turning a red Senate seat blue in 2016 “by pretending to be a moderate Republican, or hugging the middle.”
But Kander’s ability to outperform the rest of the Democratic ticket in Missouri relied on voters’ perception of him as separate from the party label, said Nathan Gonzales, editor of Inside Elections, a nonpartisan publication that analyzes campaigns.
Although Kander’s platform didn’t stray far from Democratic orthodoxy in 2016, he did stake out a handful of positions that split from the party line. He opposed Obama’s deal to lift sanctions to end Iran’s development of nuclear weapons and backed a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He also complained that a clean water rule proposed by Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency would burden Missouri farmers and ranchers.
His firm embrace of the Democratic Party establishment now could damage Kander’s brand in Missouri, a state that’s only grown redder in recent years, Gonzales said.
“Being affiliated with national Democratic figures and causes and having a national profile I think would make it more difficult for him in Missouri,” he said.
Missouri Republicans hope that’s true.
“I don’t think him jetsetting across the country and campaigning for the most liberal candidates possible is going to help him in Missouri any time soon,” said state Rep. Justin Alferman, a Republican from Hermann, Mo.
Hancock, who runs a GOP consulting firm in the St. Louis suburbs, said he’s less nervous about Kander winning a statewide race in Missouri than he’s ever been.
“He’s probably trying to figure out what he can do to remain relevant and he’s probably made the determination that his political relevance lies outside of Missouri,” Hancock said.
Kander’s trips to Iowa and New Hampshire, traditionally the sites of the first two presidential nominating contests, trigger instant speculation he’s interested in a higher office than governor or senator.
The board of Let America Vote includes former West Wing staffers Earnest, Dan Pfeiffer, a senior adviser to Obama and Jon Favreau, Obama’s chief speechwriter.
“That looks like a presidential team,” said Bob Mulholland, a California-based Democratic strategist.
“It is not bonkers to talk about it because we are in a different era,” said Scott Brennan, a Democratic operative in Iowa. “That is the Trump effect. You see lots of people who’ve never even been in office who are talking about running for the White House. If in fact Jason Kander is interested in running, you need to build your nationwide profile. That is the way to do it.”
Roarty reported from Atlanta, Ga., Lowry reported from Kansas City, Mo., and Wise reported from Washington.