Meet the Democrat who thinks he can take down Josh Hawley

Photo illustration by Erin O'Flynn/The Daily Beast/Wikimedia Commons

Photo illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Wikimedia Commons

Missouri is definitely a red state.

It’s been years since the Show-Me State elected a Democrat statewide. And with Sen. Josh Hawley (R) up for re-election in 2024, likely boosted by the headwinds of a presidential cycle, most would think he’ll be in fine shape.

But Lucas Kunce – a Democrat, Marine veteran and lawyer – has a different perspective. And he tries to get others to join.

Like a number of Democrats before him, Kunce is running as an underdog candidate, trying to turn a red state seat blue. He believes a grassroots populist approach could revitalize the Democratic Party in Missouri, betting that his working-class background will connect with voters who have felt let down by politicians.

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Just months ago, Missouri Democrats lost their 2022 Senate bid by double digits. But in the 2024 cycle, Kunce argues, things could play out differently.

He says it comes down to him – and the other guy too.

“The difference is Josh Hawley and me, right? Like the contrast that I bring to him is so stark and so powerful that it’s something that people will like,” Kunce said.

That argument encapsulates much of Kunce’s bid so far. He launched his campaign on Jan. 6 with an ad showing footage of Hawley running from rioters in the Capitol on Jan. 6 two years earlier. His Twitter is filled with anti-Hawley tweets bashing the senator on his big tech policy, consulting background and more.

Even in an interview with The Daily Beast last week, nearly all of Kunce’s answers came back to Hawley in some form — even those about his fundraising strategy and whether he would identify as a progressive or a moderate. (For the record, he says it’s neither.)

“To me, politics is not left, right. To me, it’s — it’s the bottom versus the top. And so, to me, it goes against the massive corporations that have too much power. It goes against the political class that sort of controls everything and just leaves the rest of us confused,” Kunce said, noting Americans’ frustration with corruption in Congress.

Then he slipped Hawley in.

“Josh Hawley, he sees people are upset and his solutions are just so fake,” Kunce added.

In another question, asking about Kunce’s approach to populism, he described it as “taking power back to ordinary people,” before comparing it to the notion of Hawley’s brand as also being populist.

“Josh Hawley, the media has given him this label of a populist and he probably embraces it because it’s the exact opposite of what he is. Like he doesn’t care about power for ordinary people. He’s taking it away from us,” said Kunce.

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But maybe it’s all meant to hit Hawley so squarely.

Hawley is a freshman. He beat Democrat Claire McCaskill in 2018 by 5.8 points. And he faced backlash for his response on Jan. 6 after footage showed him running away as he was photographed raising a fist in solidarity with protesters outside the Capitol before they actually breached the building.

Democrats like Kunce believe that leaves a kind of overshadowed window — an idea that Hawley is a weakness for Republicans in the state and that Democrats can win if they exploit it.

“My goal is to knock Josh Hawley out of the United States Senate. I think I’m the most qualified person to do that,” Kunce said.

But following a trend line in Democratic politics, Kunce could face some obstacles in generating the kind of national enthusiasm that would help fund an underdog bid like his. In 2016, Jason Kander garnered widespread enthusiasm and donations while running to flip Senator Roy Blunt’s seat. Kander was also a veteran with that kind of everyman appeal. But he fell short by barely three points.

Voters – and donors – tend to remember failure.

After Amy McGrath led Democrats to believe she could beat Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) in Kentucky, only to come up short, the party largely wrote off their 2022 Senate race in the state. After North Carolina Democrat Cal Cunningham’s Senate bid suffered a spectacular meltdown in 2020, Democratic nominee Cheri Beasley saw a fraction of the fundraising he did in 2022. And so on.

Then there’s the fact that Senate Democrats will be up against an incredibly difficult map in 2024. They’ll be defending swing-state seats in Michigan, Arizona and Ohio, while also defending their red-state seats in Montana and West Virginia. It is no small task – and it will be expensive. Democrats’ national campaign arms in particular will be faced with tough questions about where to put their limited dollars. And as a general rule, incumbents tend to get first priority.

In a statement, Hawley’s team hinted at the role fundraising could play in the race.

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“In the Senate, Josh has fought for working class families by taking on big and powerful forces. It worked, and now the big guys want to get back at him. That’s why we fully expect the Democratic nominee, whoever it is, to be a vigilant activist raising tens of millions of dollars to try to buy Missouri’s Senate seat,” Hawley spokesman Kyle Plotkin said in a statement.

But if Senate Democrats build up an appetite for an offensive game, Missouri would likely be their closest thing to a pickup option.

Also on the map is Texas, which has been a source of much Democratic wishcasting in recent cycles. But with Beto O’Rourke seemingly knocked out and several laps of hype fading, it’s hard to say whether the state can capture the same energy as it did this time.

Kunce still had to win the Democratic primary. At least one other Democrat, December Harmon, has jumped into the Senate race. She describes herself as an “extreme leftist” and doesn’t seem convinced to associate her brand with Hawley. Instead, she hopes to tackle “Nazis in Congress.”

Kunce also ran in 2022, but he did not win the Democratic nomination. Instead, Anheuser Busch heiress Trudy Busch Valentine, who was able to fund much of her campaign herself, edged him out by about five points before going on to lose the general election to Republican Eric Schmitt by more than 13 points.

National Democratic campaign arms didn’t invest heavily in the race back then, even when it was an open seat.

However, Kunce noted that Missouri is not a particularly expensive state to run in. It is geographically manageable for candidates hoping to cross-state and has limited media markets, and he expressed confidence that he will be able to travel enough to to be competitive. .

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On the flip side, the Republican national campaign arm appears to have some interest in taking down Kunce. Earlier this month, the National Republican Senatorial Committee shared a video from the Washington Free Beacon, who questioned whether Kunce is changing his accent to sound more southern when he runs for Senate.

Kunce said that’s just proof that Republicans are worried.

“They’re scared. They know he’s weak. They know people here don’t know him, and if they do, they don’t like him. They see his numbers. And they know the contrast I’m giving, and they know how hard it’s going to be to beat. They saw what Jason Kander did in 2016 against a much less vulnerable candidate,” Kunce said.

Kander declined a request to discuss Kunce’s bid and, more generally, Democratic chances to actually gain traction in Missouri. “I think in a few months I’ll be ready to take a stand on these issues,” Kander said.

NRSC spokesman Phil Letsou told The Daily Beast in a statement: “If Lucas Kunce’s aspiration is to follow in the footsteps of famous loser Jason Kander, we welcome it.”

It is still early in the cycle. Missouri police note that anything could happen. And some seem to get Kunce’s argument that Hawley might be more vulnerable than the rest.

But it still doesn’t look like Democrats are ready to bet on it—yet…

“I think they’re right that if there’s a candidate who might be a little bit more vulnerable, it’s Josh Hawley,” said Daniel Ponder, a political science professor at Drury University in Missouri, before adding, that it is a “very different thing”. than to say, you know, they have a good chance to win.”

“Something strange was going to happen,” Ponder said.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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