A Democrat Hunts for Votes in Trump Country

At a glance, every big name in American politics would seem either 38 or 78. 

Approaching 80, President Joe Biden is, of course, exactly the latter and a slew of millennial up-and-comers—Pete Buttigieg (39), J.D. Vance (37), Blake Masters (35), and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (31)—are about the former. An enormous generational rift has broken wide open, probably ever since the election of Barack Obama in 2008 failed to usher in an age of late Boomer and Gen X presidents. Instead, the “Silent Generation,” those born before V-J Day, got their first president, and those in their 40s, 50s, and 60s are increasingly absent from frontline U.S. politics.     

In this way, but perhaps only in this way, newcomer Lucas Kunce, aged 38, holds to type. Running for Senate in Missouri, the onetime TAC contributor and would-be senator sat down for coffee with me on Capitol Hill last week. In town for a military obligation, the retired Marine said he wasn’t in D.C. to pick up that many dollars. Kunce, a Democrat who is still employed as national security director at the anti-corporate American Economic Liberties Project, is intent on running a real-deal populist campaign for the post-Bernie Sanders age and, one can hope, the post-Donald Trump age. 

Americans, and perhaps ever-forgotten Missourians, in particular, are being torn apart by the “same forces,” Kunce told me. He’s willing to take on all comers, and is running a very non-Democratic National Committee kind of campaign: talking to right-wing radio in “the Mother of the West,” if need be, and … The American Conservative. Kunce got some of his first media exposure on populist, post-partisan internet show Rising with Saagar Enjeti and Krystal Ball (who have since gone independent and founded Breaking Points). Enjeti, a kind-of heterodox conservative, said, “I’m a huge fan of Lucas,” and, “we had him on first.”  

But Kunce has since picked up attention elsewhere. 

Assailed, depressingly, in seemingly all mainstream corners, Kunce lent support to the thrust of President Biden’s decisionto leave Afghanistan. In an op-ed for the Kansas City Star titled “I served in Afghanistan as a US Marine, twice. Here’s the truth in two sentences,” Kunce reported: “One: For 20 years, politicians, elites and D.C. military leaders lied to us about Afghanistan. Two: What happened last week was inevitable, and anyone saying differently is still lying to you.” It was a line Kunce repeated to liberal stalwart Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC, a network whose premier show, Morning Joe, had taken Biden to task for the first time in his presidency. What happened last week was “inevitable,” Kunce emphasized.

To his adherents, he’s an honest American who was willing to make the case there was no functional distinction between the withdrawal and the gist of how it was completed. You don’t get to lose wars as if you won them. Kunce’s writing has run the gambit in terms of admirers: from foreign policy progressives to Ann Coulter, the hardline conservative Trump apostate who has likewise heaped some praise on Biden. Support for the Afghanistan exodus remains popular, yet one of Kunce’s aides emphasized to me that establishment Democrats don’t want to touch the topic with a ten-foot pole. 

Kunce is no establishment Democrat. He’s not running this race on autopilot, and it’s too early to say where he goes from here. 

Missouri’s primary is late in the calendar, August 2022. And the Show Me State’s Senate contest is ramping up to be perhaps the most absurd race in the country, with the defrocked former governor, Eric Greitens, the odds-on favorite to secure the GOP nomination. Though he never spent time in the slammer—Missouri’s governors aren’t yet as deep in the game, apparently, as those in neighboring Illinois—a cloud of suspicion pertaining to a BDSM-flavored sex scandal, to say nothing of alleged nonprofit malfeasance, clouds the chances of a political talent that most concede is smart if unscrupulous. 

Kunce says Greitens can’t win. If he’s right, Kunce says that will make him a senator from a state that, while once competitive, has not voted for a Democratic president since Bill Clinton, and yet, come 2023, will sport Josh Hawley as its senior senator. 

In the meantime, he has to win his primary, which is crowded, with a bunch of fellow newcomers sniffing opportunity. Kunce may be a Yale man, but his concerns and strategy seem a world apart from, say, Secretary Buttigieg and his Harvard pedigree. Kunce won’t take endorsements from individual politicians, not even from Sanders or Ocasio-Cortez, both of whom he doesn’t necessarily see himself as a successor to. 

Lest skeptics believe he might take the mold of economic moderates Krsyten Sinema and Joe Manchin in the upper chamber, it’s clear he won’t. Just Sunday, Kunce took the side of controversial financial whistleblower May Edwards. “Natalie Edwards shouldn’t be in prison — but corrupt Wall Street execs and bankers should be. Wall Street’s grip on power in our country is a threat to national security,” Kunce wrote on Twitter. And he demands a hard line on markets: “It should be illegal for members of Congress AND anyone in their immediate family to buy and sell stocks. And the punishment should be jail time.” These types of transactions have ensnared the Democratic high command, particularly House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in recent months. Kunce just all but proposed she go to jail, if she persists in the future. 

It remains to be seen how well Kunce can play the Democratic game. Former Sen. Claire McCaskill, defeated by Hawley in 2018, told Meet the Press on Sunday that abortion should command the stage in 2022 and that Republicans are merely a “stewing pot of grievance” of a political party. I didn’t ask Kunce about abortion, who is no doubt pro-choice, and who I have little doubt doesn’t want to run for Senate talking it about all the time.  

Back home, Kunce emphasizes the state’s signature city, St. Louis, has been “gutted,” and much of the Midwest was sold for parts to the Chinese. It’s a message that has been tapped into in recent years across the ideological spectrum, from Steve Bannon to Dennis Kucinich.

True to form: the 74-year-old Kucinich is running again for mayor of his native Cleveland. Long seen as simply a gadfly, Kucinich once quipped on China’s Most Favored Nation trade status in the 1990’s that his most favored nation was the United States.

Kunce would no doubt agree. Kucinich may have been relegated to the fringes, but his contemporary, nearly 40 years younger, could have better luck. Nothing else in the world, not all its armies, is so powerful as an idea whose time has come.    

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