Ex-Marine aims to flip Missouri's red-state Senate seat with fiery populism -- and 'tough love' for  Dems
Kunce for Senate campaign

Lucas Kunce is a Democrat running for an open U.S. Senate seat in 2022 in Missouri. He is by far the leading campaign fundraiser in his party, having amassed more than double the amount of his nearest opponent.

But when it comes to looking or sounding like a traditional Democratic candidate, that’s about the end of it. Kunce is the quintessential outsider, leaning heavily on raw populist messaging that in the Trump era has been hijacked in Missouri and elsewhere -- however disingenuously -- by Republicans.

“The theme of our campaign is to fundamentally change who has power in this country,” Kunce told Raw Story. “This race is not about left right, it’s about top bottom.”

Kunce is seeking the Democratic nomination to fill the U.S. Senate seat of retiring Sen. Roy Blunt, who announced he will not seek reelection in 2022 after two terms in the Senate and 26 years total in Congress. If nominated, Kunce would face the winner of a wild Republican primary that has left GOP leaders fearful of producing a vulnerable candidate.

Kunce’s campaign prominently features his personal story -- growing up poor in central Missouri (he experienced his family’s bankruptcy as a youth) -- along with his military service. Kunce spent 13 years as a Marine officer, including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and took part in arms-control negotiations in Europe, according to his bio, which notes he “worked to make our world a safer place with fewer weapons and wars.”

Kunce’s campaign website leads with that:

“IT’S TIME TO START NATION-BUILDING HERE,” its front page proclaims. He calls for a “Marshall Plan for the Midwest” to invest in jobs and infrastructure rather than “wasting trillion on war and nation-building overseas.”

And there’s plenty of populism as well with the other top priorities emphasized: “ending corporate monopoly domination of our economy” and “abolishing corporate PACs and safeguarding democracy.”

The populist message isn’t just part of Kunce’s campaign: It’s also his day job. Kunce is director of national security policy for the American Economics Liberty Project, a national not-for-profit group established in 2020 to “to help translate the intellectual victories of the anti-monopoly movement into momentum towards concrete, wide-ranging policy changes that begin to address today’s crisis of concentrated economic power.”

So, it’s not coincidental that Kunce touts a grassroots fundraising effort for his Senate campaign. In the most recent quarter, Kunce says he outraised all other Missouri Senate candidates (of both parties), “without taking a dime from corporate PACS, not a dime from fossil-fuel company execs or Big Pharma or any of the other people who have been buying off politicians to strip Missouri for parts for many years.”

This is also a point at which Kunce departs from Democratic orthodoxy. He told Raw Story that while there are differences between the parties, they’re not so distinct when it comes to getting influenced by powerful donors.

“Every single member of congress --535 people -- run every single cycle on reducing prescription drug prices, and it never ever happens and it's because they're taking their marching orders from Big Pharma,” Kunce says. “In my opinion, that’s why Missourians have lost faith in the Democratic Party because too many people on our side having been selling out to fossil-fuel companies and Big Tech and Wall Street.”

Even when Kunce appears to toe the party line -- say, on the opposition to the filibuster -- he brings the topic back to the central “top-bottom” messaging. When asked about the subject, his response was anything but ordinary.

“What the filibuster does, is it magnifies every single dollar that these massive corporations are putting in and so you know they can focus on just like two or three people, they can buy them off,” Kunce said. “Their contributions are more powerful than anything that everyday people can do, so that's why I want to get rid of it. But it doesn't have anything to do with Democrat or Republican, it has to do with fundamentally changing who has power of the country.”

Similarly, Kunce’s Twitter account often doesn’t spare Democrats, such as when he has opposed members of Congress trading in stocks while in office, a major issue of his. On Saturday, for example, Kunce called out House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s defense of the practice and his tweet gave equal billing to Senators Rand Paul, a Republican, and Joe Manchin, a Democrat.

Kunce maintains that level of partisan independence despite being locked in a tight race for the Democratic nomination with former State Senator Scott Sifton, a St. Louis lawyer. Sifton has amassed widespread backing by party regulars. Sifton’s campaign website is a stark contrast to Kunce’s, touting dozens of endorsements but nothing like Kunce’s fiery rhetoric.

But Kunce, who began his campaign just nine months ago, has outraised Sifton by the surprising margin of $1.75 million to $725,000 through September. Kunce also can lay claim to having been the top fundraiser in either party during the third quarter. His campaign claims that 98% of his contributions are under $200 and that the average donation is $36.

Kunce’s campaign has also been set apart by frequent national media appearances and coverage. Kunce has done numerous interviews on CNN and MSNBC, raised eyebrows running ads on Fox News and been profiled in major pieces ranging from Politico to the Washington Times.

It remains to be seen if that matters at home in Missouri. But there, Republicans are worried about the possibility that a wild six-way primary -- with all of the candidates pandering publicly to Donald Trump -- might not end well for the party.

The frontrunner throughout has been Missouri ex-Gov. Eric Greitens, who resigned in disgrace in early 2018 in the wake of multiple scandals (sex and campaign-finance related). Republicans fear that Greitens’ numerous rivals will split the anti-Greitens vote and leave him as an unpopular standard-bearer.

Among Greitens primary foes are state Atty. Gen. Eric Schmitt, among the most prominent Big Lie supporter about attorneys general in the nation, two members of Congress and lawyer Mark McCloskey who garnered party fame and a spot at the 2020 GOP National Convention (along with his wife) for having aimed an assault rifle at peaceful George Floyd protesters walking past his mansion in June 2020.

Most pundits have assumed Missouri is a solid red state for 2022, although CNN did list it as one of the “10 Senate seats most likely to flip” in October. The 2016 results in the state present an anomaly: While Trump carried Missouri by a massive 18.5% percent margin that year, the incumbent Blunt won his race by just 2.8%.

Blunt, who had won first Senate election in 2010 by a much healthier 13.6% margin, is a mainstream Republican who had maintained distance from Trump in 2016. As a party leader in the Senate, Blunt has refrained from criticizing Trump, but he did vote to certify President Joe Biden’s election and emceed the Inauguration.

If Kunce got the Democratic nomination and was able to make the 2022 race another populist standoff, it’s unclear whether he could change the Democrats fortunes. But the state was represented by Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill from 2006 to 2018, so it might be a sleeper on the national stage.

In its November 24 cover story about Kunce and his populist campaign, Politico observed that the race might have national implications.

“Slim odds notwithstanding, Kunce’s race is a test case for Democrats still struggling to absorb the lessons of Trump’s appeal and reverse their losses among working-class and rural voters, especially in the heartland. It’s also an experiment in reclaiming political populism for Democrats after the GOP’s near-takeover, and defining it with neither the anti-immigrant nationalism of Donald Trump nor the religious conservatism and anti-wokeness of (Missouri senator) Josh Hawley.”

Politico also noted some parallels between Kunce and Hawley:

“(Kunce) can sound remarkably like the more-famous Missouri populist who won a Senate seat with a similar-sounding message: Republican Josh Hawley. Kunce dislikes the comparison — he considers Hawley a “fake populist,” pointing to the senator’s upbringing (son of a banker, private-school grad) and votes to confirm “corporate judges” (he named Neil Gorsuch, though Hawley was not in the Senate when Gorsuch was confirmed). Don’t even get Kunce started on Hawley’s recent comments decrying video games and the state of American masculinity (Marines play video games, Kunce points out). But in rhetoric if not in backstory, it can be hard to tell the two apart. Although Kunce does not share Hawley’s worries about corporate “wokeness,” both men blame multinational corporations, Big Tech, China and elites for what ails America in general and Missouri in particular. Both of them, furthermore, went to Yale — though Kunce emphasizes that he did so with financial aid.”

But Kunce doesn’t focus on Republicans such as Hawley nearly as much as most Democrats do. In his Raw Story interview, Kunce did not shy away from the need for his own party to change its approach to winning elections in red states like Missouri.

“When I first started this campaign and I said we’re not taking any corporate PAC money, a lot of people told me it couldn’t work, you’re not going to raise any money,” Kunce said. “Well last quarter we outraised every Democrat and Republican because we have a true message we can believe in and we’re doing it grassroots style.

“I learned in the Marine Corps to lead by example. And so, when we lead by example on this, we’re going to show the Democratic Party that this is the way it should be. When you work to put a dent into this corrupt system that is not working for most of us -- a system everyone knows is broken -- you’re going to see it works when we speak to the everyday people out there.

“We’re going to fundamentally change who has power. We’re going to make the system work for the people.”