National Democrats looking to take back the Senate in 2016 scored what they considered a victory on Feb. 19, when Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, 33, who is Jewish, officially announced his candidacy to challenged first-term incumbent Republican Sen. Roy Blunt in his hometown of Columbia.
For many Missourians, even Democrats, the announcement by Kander, a fifth-generation Missourian who served eight years as an Army officer, came as a surprise. With so much time left before voters go to the polls in late 2016, very few candidates for any office and of any party have so far officially begun their campaign. Even more, Kander’s position as secretary of state is an important office for Missouri Democrats, and political analysts in the state considered him a shoe-in for re-election.
Having won the narrow surprise victory over his Republican opponent in 2012 for the office he currently holds, Kander, his relatively brief political career notwithstanding, is undaunted by the odds in going against Blunt.
“Like a lot of Americans, I hoped things would change in Washington,” Kander said. “I hoped that the politicians there would finally remember that they were there to work for their constituents, not their campaign donors. But that hasn’t happened. We clearly need a different group of people there to get the job done.”
Although Kander is a Democrat, much of his rhetoric steers away from partisan issues; in the first weeks of his campaign, he is instead attempting to paint his opponent as a Washington insider, beholden more to government insiders, lobbyists and his Capitol Hill Republican colleagues at the expense of representing Missourians.
“This election is going to be about whether or not Missourians are happy with how things are going in Washington, and it’s going to be a stark choice between someone who has been there almost 20 years and has become a part of the problem and someone who served this country in Afghanistan and came home to serve his state.” Kander said. “I think most Missourians are ready to give someone else a chance.”
Kander’s campaign of fresh, young outsider versus the monolithic D.C. establishment, which includes differ-entiating himself from President Barack Obama, is closer to the electoral strategy used by the GOP, especially since the rise of the populist Tea Party movement. This, according to Kenneth Warren, professor of political science at Saint Louis University, is just what Democrats do when they run in Missouri.
“If they run statewide, they run on a very conservative platform, like Southern Democrats,” said Warren.
According to Warren, Missouri had long had a strong Democratic party, one that he believes is still strong in the state today. A shift in attitudes among religious rural voters, however, has made Republicans currently dominant in a majority of the state’s electoral districts.
“One of the reasons for it recently has been the reawakening of the evangelical vote, which is enormous in Missouri. Absolutely enormous,” Warren said. “In the two elections I compared — 2008 and 2012 — the evangelical vote accounted for 38 percent of the vote. The national average is 23 percent.”
Kander did not spare the Obama administration in his criticisms of Washington, especially in his belief that both Congress and the administration are not doing enough at keeping national political debates and partisanship out of prescient foreign policy decision-making. Kander included the U.S.-Israel relationship in this critique.
“I think no matter whose fault it is, the relationship with the leader of our country’s most important ally in the war on terror has to be better than this,” he said. “And I would hope that the president could put personal feelings aside and be a partner with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the sake of both of our countries.”
Attempts to contact Blunt for this story were unsuccessful.
Kander, like other military veterans who enter politics, sees his services for the state and candidacy as an extension of a will to serve, which he attributes to his Jewish upbringing. Jewish through his father’s side, he was raised Reform. He and his Ukrainian-born Jewish wife plan to raise their infant son, True, with the same religious ideals.
“I was raised in a tradition of always trying to make the world a better place,” said Kander. “And I’ve always believed that that had a lot to do with our faith.”