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Jason Kander stands on the brink of an astonishing upset

Jason Kander says military experience taught him to put mission, country first

U.S. Senate candidate Jason Kander spoke recently in St. Joseph about the need to put differences aside in Congress and get things done for the country.
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U.S. Senate candidate Jason Kander spoke recently in St. Joseph about the need to put differences aside in Congress and get things done for the country.

At lunch one day back in 2011, Jason Kander looked me in the eye and told me his plan.

He was going to run for Missouri secretary of state the next year.

I thought he was nuts.

Kander that year was a fresh-faced 30-year-old, and looked it. He was a back-bench Democratic member of the Missouri House who had been elected to his 44th District seat south of the Country Club Plaza precisely twice.

And it took 20,000 door knocks to get even that done the first time.

Hardly anybody outside that district knew who he was. Better-known pols in higher offices were coveting that statewide post. Kander knew next to nothing about statewide politics.

But there he was saying not only that he was going to run, but that he’d win it.

Over the years now, I’ve sat and listened to dozens of Republicans and Democrats tell me their aspirations for public office. As a reporter, you run these conversations through a reality filter that’s probably clogged now from too many of these talks.

Maybe I need to rinse it out.

Jason Kander somehow won that race for secretary of state by a narrow 1.5 points and became the youngest statewide elected official in the country.

Four years later, Kander stunned again, announcing his candidacy for the U.S. Senate. Hardly anyone saw it coming.

“Too many politicians in both political parties have been more concerned with scoring political points than doing what’s right for our country, and its hurt all of us,” he said in an announcement video.

On that day, he ranked as hardly more than a sacrificial lamb to the well-seasoned Roy Blunt, the incumbent who’s built a trusted political brand that extends back to the 1980s.

Democrats needed a candidate. Kander was a statewide official. Let’s give the kid a chance, the thinking was. Why not?

I thought he was nuts.

The GOP pounced. Kander’s “short on experience,” the party said. Not ready for prime time.

Today, at 35, Kander stands on the brink of a U.S. Senate seat.

A poll out this week showed him within two points of Blunt — and the wind’s at Kander’s back. He just outraised Blunt in the third quarter by $1.2 million. Donald Trump is floundering. His lead is dropping in Missouri, and that’s significant because a big lead provides electoral security for Republicans up and down the ballot.

Now, Blunt is in serious trouble, and every leading Republican knows it.

This is astonishing stuff. Kander suddenly appears to be the right guy at the right moment. He’s a candidate with an outsider’s veneer, thanks in part to his youth. He inoculated himself against the GOP gun crusade by throwing a rifle together blindfolded in that TV ad, which now ranks as the spot of the year in American politics.

It put him on the map.

Even if he loses next month, and he still could, Kander has set himself up for a future of note.

He seems to be taking it all in stride. He’s almost always the most laid-back guy in any room, or at least that’s how it appears. His word for this race? “Gratifying.”

“It’s not surprising,” he told me. “I feel the way Missourians feel. Washington is broken, and we won’t change Washington until we change the people we send there.”

Who would’ve thunk it? Not me, that’s for sure.

Kander figured out something that many of us cautious types never do. The perfect moment may never come. He went for it when he had a chance. That’s all he’s ever needed.

Steve Kraske: 816-234-4312, @stevekraske

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