Last year, long before even most Democrats thought he could win, Jason Kander explained why he deserved to unseat Republican Sen. Roy Blunt. His message, delivered in a succinct video announcing his campaign, was blunt and personal.
“We can’t change Washington if we don’t change the people we send there,” the Missouri Democrat said, looking directly into the camera.
Whether he knew it or not, he had found a catchphrase that would — 20 months later — come to explain how he now appears on the brink of an improbable upset.
While most candidates adapt and tweak their message over the course of a long campaign, the 35-year-old Kander has stuck relentlessly to the same anti-Washington attack — so much so that he used nearly the same wording in a trio of recent TV ads. (“We won’t change Washington until we change the people we send there,” he says in all of them.)
Castigating an opponent as a Washington insider is not a new approach, but the attack has found special resonance this year and in this race. That’s in part because of Donald Trump’s own promises to disrupt politics as usual, a similarity in message that dovetails nicely for a candidate who, like the GOP presidential nominee, has no prior experience in Washington politics.
He also found the perfect target in Blunt, who — to the surprise of Democrats and the angst of Republicans — has helped make Kander’s argument for him through a series of ill-timed gaffes and rash decisions.
“I think he identified early on a dynamic that was true about Blunt, and it has been magnified later in the cycle by the environment,” said Roy Temple, chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party.
The perfect candidate?
Republicans describe Kander as nearly the perfect Democratic candidate in a conservative state, one whose Army background and straight-talking style make him nearly invulnerable to the kind of pointed attacks they’ve deployed against Senate candidates elsewhere.
But even given that, they argue that Blunt’s unforced errors and once-lackadaisical approach have made the race much closer than it should be. That’s been frustrating, they say, especially in a year when the party already had to defend seven seats in states that President Barack Obama won twice.
“If he had run half, or even one-third, the campaign Rob Portman did in the off year, he probably wouldn’t have been here,” said one senior Senate Republican strategist, who requested anonymity to talk candidly. (Ohio Sen. Portman is believed to be running the year’s best Senate campaign.)
The few publicly available polls show Blunt with a tiny lead, but officials in both parties say the race is effectively a dead heat less than two weeks before Election Day. And neither side says they are confident they know how it will turn out.
“This race will be decided by a few thousand votes,” said Scott Rupp, a former Republican state senator in Missouri. “It’s going to be tight.”
The Missouri Senate race is one of seven contests that will determine control of the legislative body next year, along with battles in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Indiana, Florida, and Nevada.
It might also be the most surprising of all the Senate battlegrounds. (Indiana’s competitiveness is also a surprise, entirely because of Democratic former Sen. Evan Bayh’s unexpected entrance into the race.)
Washington Democrats long considered Kander one of their best recruits, but they held deep reservations that he could win in a state expected to swing decisively for the GOP presidential nominee.
Republicans will argue that they identified the Kander threat early on: One Nation, a Republican-aligned outside group, ran ads in Missouri in October 2015. But even they point to a perfect storm of events that made the race this competitive this late in the election.
Kander, for instance, benefited from the struggles of Ohio Democratic Senate nominee Ted Strickland and the decision of Republican Sen. Marco Rubio to seek re-election, both of which made it easier for Democrats to switch to spending big money in Missouri to help his campaign.
And unexpectedly, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign is now pouring money into the state.
The Trump factor
Kander is also bolstered by a governor’s race that leans in the Democratic Party’s favor, a splintered in-state GOP, and — perhaps above all — Trump’s own disappointing performance.
“If the Republican presidential nominee were winning Missouri by 10, 11, 12 points, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Rupp said. “I think Trump will win Missouri, but not by the margin we saw four years ago.” (Mitt Romney won the Show-Me State by 10 points in 2012.)
Kander is young, sure of himself, and “handsome,” in the words of Roger Wicker, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. He served two terms in the Missouri state House before winning statewide office as secretary of State four years ago.
On the stump, Democrats say he jokes about the fights at his rallies between Clinton and Trump supporters — made possible by the fact that his events draw members of both parties.
But those close to Kander say his work and preparation behind the scenes is the most impressive part of his candidacy. Temple, who is also a Democratic strategist, helped prepare Kander to debate Blunt over three separate sessions.
Some candidates are known for taking debate preparation lightly, most famously four years ago when Obama failed to prepare diligently for his first showdown with Romney.
That wasn’t Kander’s approach.
“He walked in the door with Roy Blunt’s record down cold, with his own record down cold, and was never thrown off an attack no matter how strong,” Temple said. “He didn’t take the bait and stayed focused on what he was trying to communicate.”
Kander’s campaign is best-known for a TV ad in which he assembled a AR-15 blindfolded. (The spot received so much attention it elicited two direct on-air responses from Republicans and allied groups.) Democrats say that for many of them, that video was when they truly believed Kander could win.
But they also hasten to add that Kander’s true winning tact has been in relentlessly labeling Blunt a Washington insider who needs to be replaced by a fresh face regardless of their party.
“Jason Kander has been consistent in what he’s saying and what he’s doing since he entered the campaign,” said Brian Wahby, an at-large-member of the Democratic National Committee from Missouri. “Go back and look at his announcement. The same themes are there.”
If Kander has stuck to one criticism, Blunt has instead let a thousand attacks bloom.
He’s criticized Kander for supporting the 2010 health care law and “sanctuary cities.” His allies have cast doubt on his support for the Second Amendment. More recently, the Blunt campaign has even accused Kander’s wife of being a lobbyist.
Most of all, Republicans have resorted to simply calling Kander a Clinton-style Democrat. In one jarring ad from the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC with ties to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kander’s face is shown literally morphing into Clinton’s.
GOP strategists say it’s the best attack Blunt can muster, especially in a red state where the Democratic presidential nominee is as unpopular as Trump. But some have also raised concerns that the strategy is generic.
“The ads mention Clinton’s name as many times as you can, to the point it was almost a parody,” Rupp said. “It was the same ad I would see if I traveled from state to state to state.”
The GOP’s biggest concern about Blunt, however, has been his struggle to beat back the charge that he’s done more to help himself and his family than the average voter.
Blunt, a former majority whip in the House who won election to the Senate in 2010, is a political institution in the state. He first won statewide office as Missouri’s secretary of state in 1984, and his son Matt Blunt was elected governor of Missouri in 2004.
But his long tenure in office has been a liability — especially given the fact that Blunt’s wife and three of his children are all lobbyists.
And Blunt exacerbated the problem when he named his son Andy, a registered lobbyist in Missouri, his campaign manager.
The decision gave Kander the license to say, as he often does, that a lobbyist is literally running the senator’s campaign — and infuriated Republicans in Washington.
“It is one of the more confounding decisions of this campaign,” said the senior Republican strategist. “It is an example of a level of hubris that cannot be denied.”
Burson Snyder, a spokeswoman for Blunt’s campaign, called the criticism misguided, citing the younger Blunt’s reputation as a stellar political operative.
“Andy Blunt is the most successful Republican operative in modern Missouri history. Period,” she said. “The fact that Sen. Blunt selected his son to run his campaign is an indication of how seriously and how early he was taking this race.”
Blunt further compounded the problem in January, when he defended his family’s chosen profession in an interview with a St. Louis radio station.
“I don’t even understand why that would be a question,” he said. “Everybody’s family does something,”
That quote has subsequently appeared in Kander’s ads.
Even Republicans who think Blunt’s campaign has performed as well as expected — not everyone adopts the view that he’s run a poor campaign — acknowledge that the environment is a tough one for a long-tenured politician of his type.
“People like Roy. They have confidence in him,” said Peter Kinder, Missouri’s Republican lieutenant governor. “But people hate Washington right now.”
Blunt defenders point out that despite the state’s recent GOP lean in presidential elections, it’s still been a favorable state for Democrats in statewide races. Six of the eight statewide offices, in fact, are held by Democrats, including the governor and one senator (Claire McCaskill).
And most Republicans believe that, ultimately, the state’s conservative lean will push Blunt to victory. Some Democrats describe the universe of undecided voters in the race as Republican-leaning white men, and express concern that they’ll break against Kander in the end.
But both parties say nobody will likely know the outcome of the race until Election Day itself.
“I can’t sit here and tell you it’s a lock,” Temple said. “But I think it’ll be hard fought until the last day. And Jason may very well come out top.”