Lucas Kunce’s military record got him on TV. Can it make him Missouri’s next senator?

By Daniel Desrochers

WASHINGTON — Lucas Kunce is talking about Afghanistan.

The 13-year Marine-turned-Democratic-candidate for Missouri’s open U.S. Senate seat made his rounds on MSNBC last month as the beltway media chronicled the American withdrawal from Kabul and, with it, the end to America’s longest war.

The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan was inevitable and anyone telling the public differently is lying, he told Lawrence O’Donnell and Joy Reid and Stephanie Ruhle. An op-ed, based on his deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, spread through social media.

“It’s part of a much bigger picture of systematic, institutional dishonesty that has made it so that people in Missouri don’t trust anything any more,” Kunce said in an interview at a coffee shop a few blocks from the Capitol. “Can you get a better example than Afghanistan? We would not have stayed in Afghanistan if our politicians, our generals, our academics and everyone else hadn’t had this push towards everyone that all of this money, all of this time, all of these resources are worth it.”

It is unclear how Afghanistan will factor into the 2022 election. But Kunce, who was already the leading fundraiser in a Democratic primary field that includes former state Sen. Scott Sifton and activist Tim Shepard, boosted his profile as Washington debated and analyzed the Taliban’s takeover.

American distrust in institutions has been laid bare over the course of the past two years, as the country has responded to a global pandemic and a deeply divisive presidential election.

Less than 50% of Americans said they had a great deal or quite a lot of trust in organized religion (37%), public schools (32%) and the medical system (44%), according to polling by Gallup in 2021.

As a military veteran, Kunce represents one of the few institutions a majority of respondents said they still trust. His transition to one of the institutions they trust least — Congress — will be a challenge.

Soldier politicians have been around since the Constitution. Military veterans are frequently recruited by political parties, particularly in competitive districts, in the hopes that their service record will help them win over voters. But military experience has never guaranteed political success.

There were the “fighting Dems” in 2006, a group of 60 non-incumbent veterans who ran for Congress. Six won.

In 2018, as a record number of women ran for Congress. Of the 14 female veterans on the ballot that year, four were elected.

Today’s polarized political environment may pose even more of a challenge.

“A candidate’s biography does not make up for the fact that the underlying partisan advantage of a district might be plus 20 GOP or plus 15 Democratic,” said Jeremy Teigan, a political science professor at Ramapo College of New Jersey.

Jean Evans, former executive director of the Missouri Republican Party, said she was recently talking to a friend who heard Kunce on the radio and liked what he was saying.

Then Kunce said he was a Democrat.

“And he said, ‘So I probably won’t vote for him,’” Evans said.

The halo effect

Candidates with a military background — particularly Democratic military veterans in Republican-dominated states — are often attractive to political consultants.

”If you’re coming in fresh, which is sort of what some people like, which is a new fresh face, not the same old, same old, then having a military background adds to that by giving you a sort of extra boost,” said Monika McDermott, a political science professor at Fordham University.

Kunce, 38, says he wasn’t recruited by the national political parties to run. He grew up in Jefferson City before attending Yale on a Pell Grant. He returned to Missouri after college and launched a failed bid for the Missouri House of Representatives before joining the military.

Less than a year after finishing his active duty as a major in the Marine Corps, he launched his second campaign, this time for U.S. Senate.

There is a long-established infrastructure of organizations designed to boost veterans into office. Vote Vets works to promote Democrats; Concerned Veterans for America supports Republicans. With Honor helps both.

Vote Vets has endorsed Kunce.

These groups sometimes donate to campaigns, help raise money and run ads. They provide a support network often inaccessible to candidates who haven’t served.

Despite efforts to get veterans elected, their numbers in Congress have shrunk since the 1970s. The 91 currently serving constitute the smallest cohort (17%) since World War II. None of Missouri’s 10-member delegation wore a uniform.

Yet veteran members often attract publicity, particularly in moments when foreign policy is a focus for Congress.

“A military veteran, whether they were a supply clerk at Fort Dix or a Navy SEAL, can kind of use that halo effect to get people to see credibility on issues that are salient for today,” Teigan said.

But, like other institutions, trust in the military is slipping, according to polling by the Ronald Reagan Institute. Democrats, independents and Republicans all had less confidence in the U.S. military in 2021 than they did in 2018, according to the poll conducted in February.

A perceived advantage

A few years ago, Teigan, the political science professor at Ramapo, wanted to test the conventional wisdom that a military background is a boost to candidates.

So he looked at races for the House of Representatives between 2008 and 2016 that involved military candidates and, after controlling for factors like a district’s partisan makeup and military population, he got his answer.

There is no inherent advantage for veterans in general elections.

“If political parties discovered that there was some actual, systematic 3, 4, 5% advantage that veterans enjoyed in general elections, they wouldn’t nominate anyone else and we’d have 535 veterans on Capitol Hill,” Teigan said.

Any perceived advantages also fade as politics becomes more and more partisan. Increasingly, campaigns have shifted from trying to persuade voters in the middle to rallying as much of their base support as possible.

Veteran candidates are a fairly diverse group. Kunce and former Republican Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens are both vets, but that’s where similarities end. Kunce is more liberal than former fighter pilot Amy McGrath, one of the country’s top fundraisers before losing to U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky by 20 percentage points. Kunce has never held office, unlike former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, who lost a close election to Sen. Roy Blunt in 2016.

Kunce’s campaign has tried to emphasize his economic message to set himself apart. He has positioned himself as a populist who wants to challenge country’s powerful elite. His earliest endorsements came from liberal groups like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which backed Sen. Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts.

“It’s not about the military, it’s about the populism,” Kunce said. “It’s about this systematic dishonesty that a lot of these people have been a part of and they haven’t really spoken out against or done anything against.”

His website reflects the degree of difficulty Democrats face in red Missouri. Kunce’s issues page is dedicated to economic policy. But to see where he stands on issues like abortion rights (he says he’ll fight back against attempts to restrict abortion), universal health care (he supports it) and protections for LGBTQ people (he supports the Equality Act), you have to click through to a second page.

While other candidates have been able to tap into economic anxiety among Missourians — most notably former President Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley — they’ve done so while supporting conservative culture war issues like abortion rights (no) and religious freedom (yes).

“The things that are happening on the national level, they’re going so far left for Missouri,” Evans said. “I think it’s really tough because you almost have to run against your own party to win in Missouri.”

That said, Evans added, there’s still one scenario where she thinks a Democrat would have a chance.

“It also depends on who we nominate,” she said. “If it’s Eric Greitens against Kunce, then you’re looking at a potential win for the Democrats.”

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