Kander’s Candor: The Future of the Democratic Party?

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It was a gloomy day in Wall Township, New Jersey, as I sat in a temporary campaign office with a group of Columbia students, finishing up lunch and preparing to dial phones on behalf of the 2017 Democratic candidates. Word had spread that a guest speaker was going to stop by—someone named Jason Kander.

Now, if you are from Missouri or the Midwest, or happened to have seen the viral campaign ad where he assembled a gun while blindfolded, his name will be familiar to you.

Jason David Kander is a retired soldier-turned-lawyer and politician. Born in the Kansas City area, he graduated from American University in three years, enlisted in ROTC after the September 11th attacks, and received a law degree from Georgetown. After his service, he was elected to the Missouri House of Representatives as a Democrat and won the position of Secretary of the State of Missouri four years later. The moment that brought him into the national spotlight was his failed bid for a Senate seat in 2016, which he followed with a speaking tour and the foundation of his own nonprofit, Let America Vote.

But it quickly became quite clear that Kander had turned his loss into a victory—even Barack Obama, when asked about the future of the Democratic Party, mentioned Kander’s name first during his last interview as president on Pod Save America. (Kander has since established his own podcast with Crooked Media, the company behind Pod Save America.)

And you can see why Kander’s background would be useful for his political future: His youth and physical fitness are immediately striking—he made sure to tell those of us in New Jersey that he technically falls into the “millennial” generation (albeit by just a few months). He is also a veteran, a particularly useful résumé line in the era of the perpetual gun control debate.

His appeal, as is usually the case, lies in what he says and the way in which he says it. His message, as delivered at a 2017 winter DNC meeting, is simple—incredibly simple:  “The thing about telling the truth about what you believe is that it works.” His argument is that to succeed in an election, you just need to have a convincing argument and stick to it. Kander has been using this tactic for more than a decade, and while it may seem like glaringly obvious advice, he may be seizing an opportunity to come to the fore, articulating the strategy as a direct counter-reaction to the recent defeat of the unpopular, scattered, and pandering Clinton campaign.

It all started in his first race, when the Kander, the nervous underdog, ended up blurting out to a voter who clearly disagreed with him, “Well, you know, this is just what I believe, I’m just trying to do the right thing, and you probably don’t agree, but that’s where I’m at.” As he started for the next door, the voter replied, “That’s fair—I’ll vote for you, and you can put a sign in my yard if you want.”

From then on, as Kander himself says, he became “addicted to having an honest conversation with voters.” And as a result of this uncomplicated strategy, he has won races he was not supposed to win. Kander had far greater electoral success in Missouri than Obama did in 2012, winning a whole ten more percentage points then him, and he scored sixteen more points than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. He lost to incumbent Roy Blunt by a nail-biting three points, and he did it by openly telling voters in a red state that “when they lift up people they don’t know, then it matters for them too.”

As the amorphous Democratic Party, now in uncharted territory by many observers’ accounts, begins searching for a new strategy, Kander’s message has newfound appeal. It makes sense—the best way to combat an administration that consistently battles against truth is to become even firmer in one’s convictions and to communicate that to voters. As he put it, “Folks are okay with not agreeing with you on everything as long as they know that you care about everybody and that everybody includes them.” Trump won the election just like that: his campaign was catered to people who voted for him not because of substantive policy choices, but simply because they felt like Trump cared about them—that they were no longer the “forgotten man,” as it were.

Jason Kander completes the equation for political success with his authentic conviction and personal charisma. Comparisons to other successful politicians have been made by plenty of politicoes: He has the charming wryness of Barack Obama, the candor and authenticity of Bernie Sanders, and the youth and optimistic energy of both John F. and Bobby Kennedy.

He is, as POLITICO’s Bridget Mulcahy described him, “a guy who lost a Senate race.” But this “guy who lost a Senate race” happens to be speaking all around the country, making connections in places like New Hampshire and Iowa--important states during primary season--and places like Georgia, Massachusetts, and Utah. Essentially, he has been making a not-so-covert tour of the country, which has led to wild speculations of a presidential run.

Of course, that would be ridiculous. The highest position he has held is Secretary of State of Missouri. But it is not an impossibility. With Al Franken ousted from the Senate and Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden growing older and older, the next Democratic presidential nomination has become increasingly unpredictable.

At most, Kander could be making a bid for the vice presidency—if we assume that his end goal, as countless articles speculate, is to be president of the United States. Since he lost his Senate race, and, realistically, he is not experienced enough to be a presidential candidate himself, he currently has only two options to progress upward politically: he can run for a seat in the House, or he can set his sights on the vice presidency. Running for a seat in the House would mean doubling down locally in one Congressional district. Grooming oneself to be picked as a candidate’s running mate, on the other hand, requires a national reputation and the ability to swing a key state or region in your ticket’s favor.

Running for a seat in the House would even be somewhat of a non-option for Kander, since the two district seats in Missouri held by Democrats are already filled and their incumbents do not seem to be going anywhere soon. Kander could try challenging Missouri’s 2nd District, which is the least red of the remaining eight available, but this would be another bitter uphill battle against a well-connected Republican (in this case, the Chair of the Missouri Republican Party) in a district across the state from his center of influence in Kansas City. Alternatively, Kander could try returning to the other side of the Kansas border, to Overland Park, where he was born, in order to challenge the Republican incumbent of Kansas’s 3rd District, but he would have to do so with few political connections of his own there and little support from the rest of the thoroughly red state. This means that the two most likely Congressional seats Kander could challenge in 2018 or 2020 are, at best, very unappealing for him. And the governorship of Missouri seems an even more unlikely step, not only because Kander made some determined enemies among the state’s Republican majority by boldly denouncing them for their voter identification policies in his last speech as Secretary of State, but also because the state is becoming redder and redder by the year. Kander and Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) may be among the last Democrats to win statewide elections as the swing state apparently stops swinging.

Instead, Kander seems to have shifted toward national awareness, continuing to speak nationally and grow Let America Vote. By entering nationwide territory, Kander may well have decided to weigh entering the realm of presidential politics.

Kander would, by his nature, make a good running mate for a Democratic presidential candidate. His milieu, persona, and military background make him uniquely popular for a modern Democrat in Middle America. That is to say, Kander is regionally advantageous for any ticket, often the main concern for vice presidential candidates.

So, Kander could theoretically pull off a vice presidential candidacy in 2020. Who would choose him as their running mate, though? Well, Joe Biden, if he runs in that election, would probably love to have him around—not because Kander might be a fun guy to goof around with in Aviator sunglasses, but because he can provide the legitimacy of youth to what would otherwise be the most elderly campaign in American history. In fact, Biden is already a bit infatuated with Kander. According to POLITICO, he would often send for an iPad to show Kander’s viral ad to his guests at donor dinners—and he may see in the veteran Kander a resemblance to his own late son Beau. Biden and Kander could make quite the team: youthful, charismatic, and ready to turn things around for the Democratic Party’s future.

But, of course, only time will tell.

Jason Kander walked into our campaign office that day in New Jersey, beaming and shaking some students’ hands. Someone sitting next to me leaned over and whispered:

“That’s the next president of the United States.”