Lucas Kunce is putting on a clinic for his fellow Democrats.
A political outsider, Kunce has embarked on a quixotic journey to become a U.S. senator from Missouri, running for the seat that will be vacated in 2022 by retiring Senator Roy Blunt. The guy started with virtually no name identification, record in office or blessing from the Democratic Party establishment. He's an ex-Marine with a fine résumé, but that's about it, on paper.
Even if Kunce were able to overcome all odds against more established politicians in the Democratic primary, he would certainly find himself a huge longshot when squared off against some better-known, slavish Trump devotee in Trump country. Suffice it to say Missouri is labeled "solid Republican" on every conventional political war map for 2022.
Despite all that, there is something that sets Lucas Kunce apart.
Unlike any statewide Democrat in memory, Kunce has come out of the gate with fire in his eyes and a forceful style made for the moment of the digital age. He has a swagger, campaigning as if he's already won the Democratic primary. When he goes after Republicans vying to replace Blunt, he acts as if they had already won the GOP nomination.
Kunce calls disgraced ex-Governor Eric Greitens "a flat-out criminal who should be in prison." He describes vigilante lawyer Mark McCloskey as a "clown" and a "criminal" and "Mansion Man." Last month, Kunce posted a hilarious video — a spot-on parody of Greitens' famous assault-rifle campaign ad of 2016 — offering McCloskey free Marine-led firearms training if he'll only apologize to those Black Lives Matter protesters who he menaced last June. It went viral.
Kunce has unveiled a dramatically populist campaign, attacking "massive corporations and corrupt bureaucrats." He describes the national group where he has his day job — the American Economic Liberties Project — as "a nonprofit fighting large corporations who use their monopoly power to stick it to the middle class."
That's the sort of message that can resonate with everyday voters the Democrats have lost in droves for the past decade or two, especially in rural areas. And Kunce is willing to call out his own party's politicians, as well as the Republicans, for having become beholden to corporate money. He even includes Facebook while railing against the monopolists, presently a Republican talking point. The man is different.
It's not every day that you see a Missouri Democrat's Twitter feed referring to "weed" while demanding an end to the drug war. Or throwing down on behalf of someone as controversial as Olympic sensation Sha'Carri Richardson, who lost her spot in the upcoming Tokyo games over an insanely stupid drug test. Or crusading for a pardon for Kevin Strickland, the Black man "convicted by an all-white jury for a crime he didn't commit," as Kunce notes bluntly.
This is not the customary soundtrack of Missouri Democrats, who are more comfortable sticking to soft language about racial justice and paying homage to Juneteenth. Few prominent Democrats would touch lightning rods like Richardson and Strickland as Kunce did.
But guess what? Running to win — as opposed to running not to lose — isn't working out so badly for Kunce. Less than four months into the race, he's gaining support far beyond what would normally be expected from an unknown candidate.
Like it or not, the scoreboard that matters early in a big race is the one maintained by the Federal Election Commission that shows the quarterly campaign fundraising reports of the candidates. So far, Kunce is blowing it up.
Kunce reports that he raised some $630,000 with no corporate PAC money and with 99 percent of his more than 20,000 donors giving less than $200. That comes on the heels of a stunning first-quarter report showing he had received $280,000 in less than a month without holding a campaign event.
Topping $900,000 in less than four months is no small feat for a first-time candidate. The total amount is but a small fraction of what a Senate candidate would need to compete in Missouri, but it's the number of small donations that Kunce has been able to raise in such short order that has to get one's attention.
Kunce's populism might be popular. The fact that he could garner thousands of small-ticket donors without having held office or previously waged a major campaign defies expectations.
Now, before Kunce could test-drive his populism against an actual Republican foe, he would have to defeat his Democratic primary opposition. The leader now is former state Senator Scott Sifton of south St. Louis County. Sifton slightly outraised Kunce in the first quarter and has until July 15 to disclose his second-quarter results.
It's an interesting contrast, to put it mildly. Sifton was a highly respected state senator — well liked among his colleagues and a lawyer widely regarded as one of the smartest members of the legislature. He'd be a fine U.S. senator.
But he's a classic example of a Democrat running to the soft center, adverse to taking risks. He's great on the issues, but not so much on the headlines.
If Sifton were the party's nominee, he'd be a dramatically better choice than any member of the tragic Republican field. But it's hard to see him breaking the Democrats' recent losing streak in big races without showing more fire.
There's a common misconception in Missouri politics that the state transformed into "deep red" almost overnight after having been dominated by statewide Democratic officeholders as recently as 2012. That's not true. The simple reality is that Democrats have over a period of many years stopped connecting with the very voters — especially those blue-collar, middle-class and rural — who constituted much of their base for many decades.
This started happening long before ex-President Voldemort came along. Let's not forget that he didn't have an ideological bone in his body. He won because he made that connection with people who felt they have been left behind by elites of both political parties, especially Democrats. This wasn't "Trumpism": It was a masterful exploitation of fear and grievance that only a world-class conman could pull off.
Everyday Missourians vote their emotions, not their ideas. The Democrats lost touch with them in the past few statewide election cycles because they forgot how to talk to them. Now, with Republicans poised to field a ghastly candidate next year, there's an opening that would not have existed against Blunt.
It's far too early to know if Democrats can pull an upset in this race, but any of the present GOP hopefuls looks far more beatable than Blunt would have been. For his part, Kunce must prove he can withstand the test of time.
But the one thing he has shown is that a Democrat can buck the culture war. For too long, the party's candidates have caricatured the elites so roundly resented in the heartland. Kunce's populist appeal offers a visceral connection — along with a swagger — and early on, it's working.
His party might want to pay attention.
Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on Donnybrook at 7 p.m. on Thursdays on the Nine Network and St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).