Hartmann: Missouri Democrats Are Their Own Worst Enemy

Fear of Lucas Kunce's maverick campaign shows why they keep losing

click to enlarge Trudy Busch Valentine and Lucas Kunce are the leading democratic candidates running to replace Roy Blunt in the U.S. Senate. Their approaches to campaigning have been radically different. - VIA SCREENGRAB, VIA SCREENGRAB
Trudy Busch Valentine and Lucas Kunce are the leading democratic candidates running to replace Roy Blunt in the U.S. Senate. Their approaches to campaigning have been radically different.

If you want to know what's wrong with today's Missouri Democratic Party, look no further than Trudy Busch Valentine's U.S. Senate candidacy.

As heiresses worth up to $215 million go, Valentine comes across as down-to-earth and empathetic. Based on conversations with many who know her, I don't doubt that she is. She did choose to devote her life to helping others as a nurse despite the comfortable circumstances of her birth, which says a lot about her.

But that has nothing to do with whether Valentine is equipped to participate in the blood sport of running for U.S. Senate in Missouri. She is not.

The most recent proof came last week when KMOV had to cancel a scheduled debate between Valentine and Lucas Kunce because Valentine and her campaign didn't even extend the professional courtesy of a response to the station, an act of political malpractice.

Kunce and Valentine are the top two contenders for the Democratic Party nomination in the August 2 primary. That Valentine refuses to debate Kunce in this and all other forums is a slap in the face to Missouri voters in general and Democrats in particular. And a real sign of weakness.

Valentine won't debate because she cannot debate. She doesn't have the chops. As the RFT reported, this is a candidate who has consistently ducked the voters because, essentially, she's not ready for the stage.

In contrast, Kunce has traveled the entire state with old-fashioned retail politics for nearly 18 months. He has garnered an astonishing amount of national news coverage, including multiple appearances on Fox News, where lots of potential converts are watching (even if that's heresy to mainstream Democrats).

Kunce raised more than $3.3 million in mostly small donations through the first quarter of the year, which his campaign says is the largest such total in the nation. That number is certain to rise substantially when second quarter totals come out later this week.

Kunce is unscripted, unvarnished, unhandled and very much unlike Valentine.

He has done the work. She has not. Worse, she displays all the enthusiasm for diving into campaigning that most reserve for a root canal.

Consider this troubling passage reported at stltoday.com:

"Valentine, who owns farmland in Montgomery County, said she will spend much of the primary election focusing on Democratic voters in the state's major population areas.

"But she pledged to make more forays into the rural, red part of the state if she wins.

"'We need to talk about the issues that are facing the farmers,' Valentine said."

I don't believe those words have ever been said out loud until now. Even behind closed doors, no serious statewide candidate in Missouri says that they're not traveling to meet outstate primary voters.

It's just unheard of to snub the most critical part of the Missouri electorate — outstate Democrats and independent voters who left the party to support Donald Trump. But Valentine's pivot to talking about "the issues that are facing the farmers" was perhaps still more troubling.

Note to Valentine's handlers: Could you please inform your candidate that the vast majority of voters in outstate Missouri are not farmers? The folks in small towns and cities throughout the state — the ones you see at Walmart or Dollar General — are regular people providing goods and services to one another just like people do in the major population areas. Perhaps they deserve a visit.

Kunce is one of them. He grew up poor in Jefferson City and lives in Independence. To borrow a favorite line from former MSNBC anchor Brian Williams, "He speaks American."

One year and a week ago, I wrote about Kunce in this space under the headline, "Finally, a Missouri Democrat Who Brings the Heat." I'm not in the habit of quoting myself (who is?), but here was my first impression of the guy:

"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.

"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.'

"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 first impression is unchanged today. Kunce, a 13-year former Marine, is the rare Democrat who can connect with the voters whom the Democrats have been losing to the culture wars in recent decades. He's fearless in attacking Democratic leaders, along with Republicans, for their failure to stand up to major corporate interests.

Democratic party leaders hate that. Missourians across party lines love it.

Kunce is prone to swearing and doesn't care if he offends you. Good. Someone please gift the Democratic Party a GPS system. This is Missouri.

Kunce doesn't traffic in phrases like "marginalized peoples," but his firebrand politics will do more for them than Democrats ever have with the soothing sounds of political correctness. Such irony.

It is nothing short of appalling to see how Democratic Party leaders have refused to embrace Kunce's maverick style. They just cannot stand the guy, which is why they have lined up like ducks to support Valentine.

Why? Mostly because she's not Kunce and as a nice nurse with no controversial positions on anything, she keeps them in their safe space.

I don't know if Kunce can win in November against one of the sycophants in the Trump-infested Republican field. But I do know the Democrats won't win bringing a plastic spoon to this particular knife fight.

Valentine might hold the Democrats' 41 percent floor from recent election cycles by running as a nurse and decent person. But that won't entice outstate voters (or even those from Kansas City) to get behind a radical-socialist heiress from St. Louis, which is how the Republican mudslingers will portray her. (Sorry to break that news.)

Perhaps like Kunce, I don't care what Democrats think of what I have to say. This U.S. Senate seat is too important for any of that nonsense. It's not about Missouri; it's about the future of American democracy. Missouri is in play and could represent the 50th Democratic vote in the Senate. Or more optimistically, the 52nd, which might Manchin-and-Sinema-proof the party's majority, thus helping end Republican obstruction by filibuster.

It does not matter which of their candidates the Republicans choose. Sure, the eerie Erics — Greitens and Schmitt — are the creepiest. These snarling blobs of testosterone are poster boys for the need for red-flag laws to take guns away from the unbalanced. But U.S. Representative Vicky Hartzler (R-Harrisonville) is even more of an anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ bigot than they are. And she voted 100 percent in support of Trump's insurrection.

This U.S. Senate seat is a must-win for Missouri Democrats now that it's in play thanks to the Republicans' pathetic field. Democracy hangs in the balance. The fundamental rights of women — among others — hang in the balance. This will be an all-out vicious fight, the kind that Lucas Kunce welcomes.

And it's no time for Democrats to play nice. 

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).

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