Democrat Jason Kander strides into a storefront campaign office here, shaking hands, joking about the Chicago Cubs’ World Series win (Kander was for Cleveland), posing for pictures.
Save for a few campaign staffers, Kander is by far the youngest person in the room. In some years, his age and inexperience might be disqualifying, but this year, in the closing hours of a dead-heat campaign, the 35-year-old Democrat is trying to use youth to his advantage.
“There is this new generation stepping forward right now,” Kander says. “It is a generation that is more focused on ideas than on ideology.”
Kander has made a similar argument for weeks. In the campaign’s final hours, he’s drawn a sharp contrast with opponent Roy Blunt, a baby boomer with a long political record.
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Yet Kander’s emphasis on his youth and relative outsider status has apparently left some voters unsatisfied. In a Monmouth poll released this week, almost half of likely Missouri voters said they had no opinion of the candidate — an indication that he remains a blurry figure for those still making up their minds.
Kander is the sitting secretary of state in Missouri, yet many voters still aren’t sure where he stands.
“It’s hard,” said Naomi Stewart, 40, from Knob Noster, Mo. Stewart is undecided in the race and came to Warrensburg to hear Kander speak.
“I want a people candidate,” she said. “I want to make sure that they’re going to go there and take care of my needs, along with the same people who are in the situation I’m in.”
Blunt — aided by more than $20 million in outside ad spending in the state — has tried to fill in the blanks. He’s slammed Kander’s approach, arguing repeatedly that the Democrat supports the unpopular Affordable Care Act, the closing of the terrorist prison at Guantánamo Bay and new gun restrictions.
And Blunt has linked Kander with Hillary Clinton: One commercial digitally dissolves his face into hers, a visual representation of the argument.
Kander supports Clinton, yet he never mentioned her name during the Warrensburg visit. He did not talk about Obamacare, or expanding Medicaid coverage, or immigration reform.
He tried to put some distance between his own views and those of national Democrats. He told The Star in an interview he likes the 60-vote threshold for Supreme Court nominations, putting him at odds with Democrats who want a 51-vote threshold.
Lowering the threshold would make it easier to confirm Clinton’s nominees if Democrats take control of the Senate.
“I’m predisposed to keeping things the way they are,” Kander said. “We should try and make the (60-vote threshold) work. Sen. Blunt is obsessed with how political parties work, and he thinks about even the Supreme Court in terms of political parties.”
Kander also did not mention Donald Trump. That may be in part because Kander hopes to appeal to blue-collar Missourians who like Trump’s protectionist, isolationist message. Kander, like Trump, strongly opposes most trade deals with foreign nations.
Kander’s closing argument is not aggressively partisan — that’s typical for most Missouri Democrats running for statewide office. It also largely sticks to safer themes like easing the burden of student loans, or paying women as much as men for the same work.
Liberal voters seem satisfied with that approach.
“He gives us an alternative to what has been there for so many, many years,” said Eddie Osborne, 65, of Warrensburg. “As a liberal Democrat, I see him as being more cooperative rather than being obstructionist.”
Kathryn Rankin, 60, said she liked Kander’s positions on energy and conservation. “I support a progressive agenda, and he’s definitely the best candidate,” she said.
What Kander has done, to the Republican Party’s anger and chagrin, is to make the closing days of the race a referendum on Blunt, the incumbent, and his wife and children. The party accuses Kander of attacking their candidate on a personal basis, a suggestion Kander rejects.
“I have no judgment to pass on a member of his family. They’re impressive people who are good at their jobs,” Kander said. “I’ve also made it really clear that he has a conflict of interest, and he should get a new job.”
Blunt has tried to turn the lobbyist argument on its head by calling Kander’s wife, Diana, a lobbyist, a characterization the Kander campaign fiercely disputes.
Kander’s closing argument will also include healthy doses of his military experience. For a candidate who rocketed to national prominence for assembling a weapon while wearing a blindfold on a TV ad, Kander’s overseas service in the Army remains a message that helps him in the state.
“I have seen members of this generation sign on the dotted line and enlist when they knew doing that probably meant going to war,” he tells the Warrensburg crowd. “I’ve seen them, after they’ve been hurt, asking to go back again.”
That combination — a military record, a familiar incumbent opponent, a generational contrast — has brought Kander from obscurity to national prominence as one of his party’s strongest recruits in 2016.
Whether that’s enough to beat Roy Blunt in red-state Missouri is an open question.
“I’m very confident about where we are,” Kander says before striding out the door and onto a bus, headed for another rally.