How Jason Kander Won by Losing

https://player.megaphone.fm/POL9484657026?

MANCHESTER, N.H.—Jason Kander was wearing a mic pack here as he wandered around the Puritan Backroom, chatting with local activists and politicians at the Manchester Democratic Club chicken dinner. A videographer, who followed him around as he moved from table to table, was being paid out of his campaign account.

Kander’s Senate race ended seven months ago. He lost.

At the dinner, right in the heart of presidential hopeful pilgrimage territory, Kander delivered a version of a speech he’s been doing all over the country since November—the resistance he’s seen to Donald Trump, what Democrats need to remember about themselves, the story of the Afghan translator who surprised him by not caring that he was Jewish, and a reminder that yeah, he’s the guy from the viral ad taking apart the rifle with the blindfold on.

“If this were a season of ‘The Apprentice,’ Donald Trump would have fired Donald Trump! … Donald Trump won the election, but he did not win the argument! … If we work together, we can save the American dream from the nightmare that is Donald Trump!”

That was Friday night. Next stop was Saturday morning in Worcester, to gush about Elizabeth Warren at the Massachusetts state Democratic convention, then to Kentucky that night for the Young Democrats Convention. On Friday, he hit Salt Lake City for the Utah Democratic Party Taylor Mayne Dinner. Saturday night, it’s Ottumwa for the Iowa Democratic Party Dinner, before going to Atlanta on Monday to headline the campaign kick-off for Georgia governor hopeful Stacey Abrams. He even gave the keynote speech at the Democratic National Committee elections meeting in Atlanta in February.

The 36-year-old Kander—who came shockingly close to ousting Missouri’s Republican Sen. Roy Blunt last November despite Hillary Clinton’s blowout loss in the state—has been a man in demand the last seven months, starting with a major Iowa progressive group that reached out after the election to ask him to come to its holiday party. He drew a slightly bigger crowd than Bernie Sanders had at the same event two years earlier. He’s kept doing presidential-ish travel and generating presidential-ish buzz, though the highest office he’s ever held is secretary of state—of Missouri.

“All I can tell you is what people say when they invite us,” Kander said, sitting down for an interview for POLITICO’s Off Message podcast. “They say that they want me to come talk about the future of the party, how we were able to run 16 points ahead.”

“I wasn’t out there pretending I was a conservative Democrat,” he added. “I’m somebody who has talked a lot about and has done the act of running as who you are. You know, making a progressive argument, even in red states, and then did very well doing that.”

To hear Democrats from Barack Obama on down tell it, Kander is the future of the party: young, energetic, an insistently progressive lawyer from a red state, a devoutly anti-Trump military veteran … and, like the Democratic Party, not currently anywhere near power.

Since losing his Senate race to Blunt last year—Kander nearly won in a state Clinton lost by 19 points, and picked up 220,000 crossover Trump voters by running on a progressive economic message—he’s become a star of the Democratic grassroots circuit. He’s picked up 100,000 new Twitter followers and a CNN contributor contract. He’s been embraced by the insular Obama orbit and all but adopted by Joe Biden, who sees in Kander a little of his late son Beau, another earnest young Army veteran. The former vice president spent many a donor dinner last year calling out to a staffer “give me the iPad” so he could play the rifle ad—which has been view nearly 1.5 million times on Kander’s YouTube channel—for them himself.

Under attack by Blunt and the NRA for not understanding guns, he put together an assault rifle, blindfolded, while ticking through his record in the Army and fighting for background checks in the statehouse—finishing in under 30 seconds with a dare: “I approved this message because I’d like to see Senator Blunt do this.”

There’s not much market for more of Ted Strickland or Katie McGinty, who also lost Senate races last year, or Allison Lundergan Grimes, the Kansas secretary of state who tanked a Senate race of her own in 2014. But people can’t get enough of Kander.

“He’s clearly a star and everybody knows it,” said Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who campaigned for Kander and has continued checking in with him by phone. They met when Franken did a USO show in Kabul in 2006, and though Franken doesn’t remember that, Kander has made an impression on him since: “He’s the funniest of the candidates that we’ve had since I started doing this.”

If Kander had beaten Blunt last year and been a freshman progressive Democratic senator from a red state with a history that includes fighting for voting rights and serving as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan, he’d be at the top of all the 2020 speculation lists. Now, “he’s a winning commodity—but there’s no elected position for him,” is how one high-ranking Missouri Democratic aide put it, despite the hopes of some local Democrats that he’d run instead of top GOP target Claire McCaskill next year.

And maybe, just maybe, he’s running for president in 2020 anyway. By then, he would only be 40—seven years younger than Obama was in 2008.

When I put this to Kander during our interview, he danced: “Politicians never say never to anything.” Which is what, as I pointed out to him, people who are running for president tend to say. “I’m really focused on what I’m doing. I really am. I believe in what I’m doing, and I’m honestly really enjoying my work,” Kander said, in another answer that could be both sincere and standard speculation-deflection.

***

Kander does have a day job, of sorts—running Let America Vote, the group he started post-election that draws on his experience fighting voter ID laws in Missouri to highlight restrictions being pushed in different states, and help activate the opposition. Kander says he’s already heard about nervous county clerks around the country calling their counterparts in Missouri to ask questions about him, and takes credit for concrete moves like getting an early voting location opened for the upcoming special election in Georgia’s sixth House district. He’s also chairing the DNC’s own voting rights commission formed in response to Trump’s voter fraud commission, though that has yet to even have a full meeting or conference call as they wait to see whether the White House-backed group actually does anything that warrants a response.

Other than the CNN contract that has him on the air three times per week, Kander doesn’t have a salary. He’s leaned on all his connections to nab board members and donors for Let America Vote, but he feels guilty about getting paid out of money he’s helping raise. His wife—a corporate motivational speaker who calls herself an “innovation catalyst”—jokes that he’s like an artist, following his dreams of unpaid political work.

“How goes your art?” Franken likes to say when they get on the phone.

It’s more like a passion. Kander calls Trump’s repeated claim that 3-5 million people voted illegally in 2016 “the biggest lie a sitting president or president-elect has ever told”—one he says isn’t just a harmless fib, but a genuine threat to democracy. “Everybody else saw a guy who is deeply insecure, who was lying to his own ego to soothe it about the fact that he lost the popular vote by more than any president in our history,” he said. “That still was definitely a factor, but what I saw was more than that, which was somebody who was helping pave the way for them to pass more of these laws that make it a lot harder to vote.”

In 2013, he took on Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach for trying to get the National Association of Secretaries of State convention to adopt a resolution telling the Obama administration to leave voting issues to the states by standing up in front of all of them and saying, “‘Look, it just happens to be the case that one party wants to keep the federal government out of elections, and the other party wants to let black people vote,’” he recalled saying in the Off Message interview.

“He did not take well to that comment,” Kander said. “He looked like somebody who was acting very offended at someone pointing out something that was obviously happening.”
Trump’s picking Kobach to head his voter fraud investigation, Kander said, “tells me that the commission is exactly what we thought it was.”

Then there’s the farewell speech he delivered to the state legislature in January, that took what was meant to be a perfunctory, great people of the Show Me state blah-blah and turned into a blasting attack on Republican plans to revive voter ID efforts.

It did not go over well.

“I named all the offices they won. And so, of course, they applauded that. And I was like, ‘Yeah, you applaud yourselves if you want. I don’t care. You’re still going to sit there and listen to what I have to say about the right to vote,’” he said.

The Republican majority legislature responded by not taking up the traditional resolution to thank him for his service.

***

Jason Kander’s already gotten Obama’s attention.

Back in 2012, he beat the then-president in Missouri too, running 10 points ahead as he ran for secretary of state race despite a radio ad in heavy rotation featuring a clip of him saying, “I believe in President Obama.” But they’ve actually met only once, backstage at an event in Kansas City in 2014. He was not one of the losing candidates who got a “proud of you” call from the White House after the election, though he was the first name Obama offered up as the future of the party in his last interview as president, with the former White House staffers who now host Pod Save America, catching Kander and his staff totally by surprise. The hosts had already had Kander on and swooned over him, as had Obama’s former political director and current Foundation CEO David Simas. The list of Kander’s admirers in Obama circles is long—a love affair that started when former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry helped set him and Obama press secretary Josh Earnest up on what amounted to a blind friend date, since both are big Democrats from Kansas City who can’t ever stop talking about the Royals.
“Jason, over the course of his campaign showed the courage of his convictions in standing up for Democratic values even in a state that wasn’t blue,” said Earnest, which won him “the respect of a lot of people in Obamaworld.”

Earnest has stayed in touch since the election. Simas has too. Biden had him in six weeks ago to a meeting in Washington to brief him on some of the big new Democratic efforts that have taken shape since November.

The speaking invitations keep rolling in. Kander has two staffers who travel with him and help plan the logistics in between their work for Let America Vote, including his friend and former campaign manager Abe Rakov, who has moved to Washington but remains plotting his future with a we’re-up-to-something grin.

It’s a measure of the Democratic Party right now that the politicians generating the most excitement are the former president, the former vice president, a 74-year old senator who’s not officially a Democrat, a 67-year old Massachusetts senator whom many centrists believe would turn the party’s economic to the radical left, and a guy who lost a Senate race. It’s a measure of Democrats’ current “anyone can run” thinking around the 2020 field that Kander is being discussed at all—though that often gets stopped with a, “well, not anyone.”

On the other hand, a new Morning Consult/POLITICO poll shows that the 60 percent of people who say they’ve never heard of him is exactly the same number for John Hickenlooper and Jay Inslee, both two-term governors who may run themselves, and only a few points behind theoretically bigger stars like Terry McAuliffe and Kamala Harris.

Some Democrats watching closely think he might just go through with it. Or maybe he’ll just let it keep floating, or endorse someone else as he launches a campaign for governor—using the somewhat insane idea that a one-term secretary of state could lose a Senate race, only to become president four years later, as a publicity vehicle for a more realistic statewide bid in 2020. And then there’s a future beyond either running or serving in the next Democratic administration.

“Bill Clinton first came to New Hampshire in 1979, when he was all of 31,” said New Hampshire Democratic Party chair Ray Buckley, after listening to Kander speak at the Puritan Backroom. “It’s never too early to start making friends in New Hampshire.”

“I’m really focused on making sure we still hold elections right now,” Kander said. “And maybe one day I’ll be in one.”

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