The New Bellwether Democrats

Why the party might score important victories in Missouri even if the state goes for Trump.

Jason Kander and Chris Koster.
Jason Kander and Chris Koster.

Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Tom Williams/Getty Images and Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

COLUMBIA, Missouri—Jason Kander served in Afghanistan. He mentions this. Often. Not just when he’s talking about foreign or military policy. Even when he’s talking about, say, legislative and campaign ethics reform, which he also talks about a lot. He was talking about both things last week in a press conference on the University of Missouri campus.

“As you know,” the 35-year-old Senate candidate was saying, “I did anti-corruption investigations as a military intelligence officer in Afghanistan.” This was Friday, last Friday, and in a few hours the events of the day would move very heavily on Donald Trump’s campaign for president. But here in a small room on the second floor of the university’s student union, where Kander was flanked by three state legislators focused on improving Missouri’s near-negligible state government ethics laws, the election was unfolding very differently. “And then,” Kander went on, “I came home, and I got elected to the state legislature and I found, unfortunately, there was plenty of anti-corruption work to do there.”

Ethics reform is a common focus of ambitious young politicos in a hurry. It allows them to float over the partisan fray without weighing themselves down with any political baggage. Barack Obama, to name the most prominent hit in the genre, attached himself to ethics-reform initiatives as both a state and United States senator.

It’s also not a coincidence that Kander, Missouri’s secretary of state, is playing up his good-government, taking-on-the-establishment credentials when his opponent, incumbent Sen. Roy Blunt, has been in Washington for decades, owns a million-dollar–plus home there, and has several lobbyists in his immediate family. Blunt is not a bad senator. Like a lot of “Washington insiders,” he can be quite effective in delivering the goods for his state and in closing deals while his more self-righteous colleagues, such as Sen. Ted Cruz, promote themselves for the cameras. But the “insider” label still makes Blunt quite vulnerable this cycle, and Democrats are moving in for the kill.

What makes Kander vulnerable, aside from his nonincumbency, is that D next to his name. Crafting a post-partisan message on issues like ethics reform is more of a necessity for Kander in Missouri than it was for Obama in Illinois. That’s because running as a partisan is a certain way for a Democrat to lose a statewide campaign here. Kander knows it. His fellow Democrat running for governor, Chris Koster, knows it, too. And as a result, both have had to run races that bear little resemblance to the kinds of races Democrats run nowadays.

Missouri isn’t the swing state that it used to be. In all but one election between 1904 to 2004, the winner of Missouri’s electoral votes was also the winner of the presidential election. The state, famously, was the national bellwether.

This ended in 2008. Barack Obama lost the state by 3,632 total votes, or one-tenth of a percentage point, in an election he won nationally by 7 percentage points. It was the state watched by Obama staffers, already well into their celebratory champagne, as a post-victory side amusement. The domino never fell. By 2012, the state was wholly uncompetitive: Obama lost it by 258,644 votes, or 9.38 percentage points. That was far more than his national drop-off in support between 2008 and 2012.

Missouri, on the presidential level, is a red state—and a red state of the Trumpish variety. Between 2010 and 2015, its population grew a modest 1.6 percent with little net in-migration. Like Ohio, another state that’s leaning redder on the presidential level this year, its racial demographics are mostly stagnant, and the share of the elderly population (65 and older) increased from about 14 to 16 percent in the five-year window. Donald Trump could lose Missouri, but only in the event of a (possible!) Clinton landslide.

So it comes as some surprise, then, that Democrats in the state’s two other marquee races, for Senate and for governor, are not just holding their own, but in a decent position to win. In the former, Blunt has held a narrow lead over Kander throughout. But reporting suggests Kander is leading in some internal polling, and forecaster Larry Sabato this week moved the race to “toss-up” status. And in the governor’s race, Koster, the state’s 52-year-old attorney general, has long maintained a comfortable advantage over his opponent, the peculiar Eric Greitens. Missouri politicos expect that race to tighten as Republicans—still torn following a divisive gubernatorial primary—come home in the final weeks of the campaign. However these races finish, the Republican candidates will almost certainly finish behind Trump’s percentage in the state, the opposite of the trend we’re seeing in close races in Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Florida, and Arizona. The two Missouri Democrats aren’t the most elegant exponents of the party’s ideas, but their success in this cycle might offer their colleagues a model for how to expand in the reddening parts of the country.

* * *

The two Democrats share few outward similarities. Koster is more of a Missouri political veteran. He’s a self-described “conservative Democrat” who in 2007, left the Republican Party, for whom he served as a high-ranking state senator. A pro-gun, pro–death penalty fiscal conservative who’s never going to light up progressive circles, Koster is nevertheless a fierce ally of organized labor and opponent of the overwhelmingly Republican state legislature’s efforts to make Missouri a so-called “right-to-work” state.

Kander, meanwhile, is one of the top long-term Democratic prospects in the country, a post-partisan who focuses less on Democratic issues than on loftier goals, like fundamentally changing Washington. (As with early Obama, members of the Democratic Washington establishment speak in superlatives of this young man who seeks to disrupt them.) He is widely credited, too, with producing the single most effective ad of the cycle in a state where being perceived as “anti-gun” is effectively a nonstarter.

Few expected him to have a shot at Blunt’s seat. After a lengthy career in the House and a tenure as its Republican whip, Blunt was supposed to assume his rightful place in the Senate in 2010 and hold his spot there comfortably for the rest of his life. In his seven congressional races and one other Senate race, the closest general-election victory he’s ever posted was a 14-point rout. But Blunt, a Chamber of Commerce Republican, found himself at distinct odds with the flavor of his party and its new squeeze, Donald Trump. By the end of 2015, Kander’s ability to stay in striking distance of Blunt earned him National Journal’s label of “trendy upset pick of 2016.”

“A person’s financial background, or their connection to lobbyists, doesn’t qualify anybody to represent anybody else,” Kander continued at the press conference, taking care not to mention anyone’s name in particular. “It is a person’s record of service, it is their character, it is their values and their commitment to the best interests of others that make them fit to hold office.”

Among Kander’s ethics proposals for Washington: extending the two-year ban on members from serving as lobbyists to a permanent ban. Apparently Kander doesn’t just want to put Blunt out of political office; he wants to preclude him from then joining what the campaign is calling Blunt’s “family business.”

Kander also said that a top priority of his would be overturning Citizens United. When he finished his statement, I asked him what his preferred vehicle for doing so was: confirming a fifth Supreme Court justice against it, pushing for a Constitutional amendment? Something else?

“We need to do it as fast as possible,” he responded, not answering the question. The cameras were still rolling. “Our democracy is hurting everyday that Citizens United is in place.” So then … no preference? “Whatever gets this done fastest,” he said. I’m sure he could have answered the question if he’d wanted to. But why bog down the message with the sort of Beltway-insider jargon that a Beltway insider like Beltway-insider Roy Blunt might use?

Should he win, one need not strain to see the ways in which he’ll disappoint what Robert Gibbs famously called “the professional left.” He supports a self-destructive balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution and opposes the Iran nuclear deal. He leans hawkish, but triangulates neatly between foreign-policy caricatures so as not to sound like an out-and-out Republican: “When I look at one side saying that ISIS is at the doorstep in suburban America, and the other side saying that it’s not really something to be that concerned about, the truth is that it’s something to be very concerned about.” I asked him which senator he looks to as a model for how he would serve. He didn’t name any, but did say that he hoped he could work with fellow Iraq and Afghanistan veterans Tom Cotton, Joni Ernst, and would-be Sen. Tammy Duckworth on fighting ISIS. The idea of one of their own working with Tom Cotton on combatting ISIS is a thought that will terrify many Democrats.

But that’s a conversation for the future. The first step is getting him to Washington, and he has a far better shot of doing so than many envisioned a year ago. A few more revelations about Donald Trump of the “grab them by the pussy” variety may be enough to put Kander over the top.

* * *

State-level politics work a little differently. Last Saturday morning, while the national political media focused exclusively on Donald Trump’s comments, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster gathered volunteers from local unions to canvass south St. Louis. Dozens of working men and women clad in yellow shirts gathered at the Operating Engineers Local 148 hall to hear from local labor leaders, UFCW International President Marc Perrone, and ultimately from Koster himself for a pep rally ahead of a day of door knocking. A wood-paneled folding table was set up with donuts and pastries, along with coffee and nondairy creamer for Styrofoam cups. A vendor at the next table was selling political buttons for $3 apiece.

“I would tell you that [Koster] is honest, has integrity, and he certainly has a radio voice,” Perrone said, to laughs, “and a TV face.” Koster supported labor “viciously and ferociously against the onslaught of right-to-work.” He then introduced Koster as the “person who’s gonna take care of hard-working men and women in Missouri.”

Chris Koster is a complicated story. He’s a former Republican state legislator who in 2007, flipped parties over Republicans’ interest in banning stem-cell research and a general sense that his colleagues had gone off the deep end. At least that’s how his campaign tells it. The more cynical interpretation is that there was less of a queue for nomination to statewide office in the Democratic Party. Maybe it’s a bit of both. But becoming a Democrat in red-trending Missouri would be a risky move for someone consumed purely by opportunism. So far, he’s made it work, serving two terms as attorney general and now holding the edge over his Republican gubernatorial opponent, first-time candidate and former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens.

“There’s a woman, standing back by that refrigerator, a St. Louis County police officer,” Koster said as he began, pointing out the cop doing security by the back entrance of the hall. “Poke your head out, young lady. She and I said hi when I came and I tried not to get choked up.” A St. Louis County police officer had been shot two days earlier.

Koster is a conservative Democrat, a term he self-applies. So maybe he’s pro-choice and an advocate for stem-cell research, but he’s also pro-gun enough to earn the endorsement of the National Rifle Association. He’s fiscally conservative, and forthrightly conservative on agriculture issues. As attorney general, he joined other states in suing the federal government over both the EPA’s proposed “Waters of the United States” and power plant emissions rules. He won the Missouri Farm Bureau PAC’s endorsement, the first Democrat running for statewide office ever to earn that endorsement. But he also has labor’s back, and it’s a priority of his to finally get Missouri to accept the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion—something outgoing Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon was unable to get through the Republican legislature during his second term.

Koster’s opponent doesn’t have a neat political history of his own, and has drawn his own accusations of opportunism. Prior to this race Greitens had no history as a candidate for public office, though he did turn down a recruitment effort to run for the House in 2010—as a Democrat. “I am a conservative Republican, but I didn’t start out that way,” reads the opening sentence of his July 2015 Fox News opinion column, “Why I Am No Longer a Democrat.” Two months later, he would throw his hat into the Republican gubernatorial primary, a dirty, expensive race between four candidates that Greitens won with a modest 34.6 percent of the vote. (Like Jason Kander, Greitens ran a gun-trick ad that went viral. Unlike Jason Kander, Greitens blew shit up in his ad.)

The story of a Republican political novice winning the nomination with a modest plurality in a nasty primary that left lots of bitter feelings and prevented party unification heading into November may sound … familiar. But the Koster campaign expects the race to tighten to a razor-thin margin by the end. What Koster has that national Democrats don’t is a cachet with the white working-class voters who’ve drifted away from the party at-large over the past several decades.

That Koster will need a lot of split-ticket, Trump-Koster voters this November, though, won’t stop him from calling out Trump’s bogus appeals to working people. Near the end of his pep talk to union volunteers, Koster said that when Donald Trump tells one of his favorite stories—about Carrier’s decision to close its Indiana plant and move to Mexico—he tells only half the tale. He tells the part about Carrier wanting to pay neither a union wage, nor half a union wage, nor even the federal minimum wage; they just wanted to leave the country.

“That’s where Donald Trump stops the story,” Koster said. “Folks: Indiana is a right-to-work state. This was never supposed to happen. Because the leaders of that business community, who had these lower wages and lower working securities in their heart, had already gone to the people of Indiana long ago and said: ‘Give us your collective bargaining rights … you will be secure.’ That even after they had taken everything from working folks in Indiana that they wanted—their pension, their collective bargaining, their security—the folks who had made these promises still picked everything up and left to go to Mexico.”

These are strange words to hear from a fiscal conservative, but Missouri is a strange place now. No longer a bellwether, it is tilting Republican by virtue of not really changing at all. But the Democrats recruited candidates who are well-tailored to the state’s needs. Kander, who served in Afghanistan, fits the profile of a charismatic, natural talent running against an insider at odds with the distinct outsider leading his party. Koster’s done time in both parties and knows how to speak to voters in each. It’s a reminder of that cliché that’s reasserting itself this cycle: Candidates matter. The ascendance of political science and data journalism in political coverage in recent years, and the belief that fundamentals like underlying economic conditions largely determine outcomes, haven’t so much been undermined this year as they’ve been tempered. Donald Trump potentially losing the presidential race by 10 points in an environment slightly more favorable to Republicans is the most glaring example of this. It turns out this stuff isn’t just a matter of showing up.

Of course, allowing for Missouri’s weird electoral imperatives, both men also deploy a few carefully chosen apostasies—a balanced-budget amendment? fiscal conservatism from a fierce defender of collective-bargaining rights?—as a way of distancing themselves from the national Democratic Party. The near-total wipeout of conservative Democrats, aka “blue dogs,” from leadership during the Obama years has led some Democrats to give up hope on reclaiming those redder districts. A lot of progressives, frankly, were happy to see them go. But a party that cedes dozens of governor’s seats, most state legislatures, and any chamber of Congress is a party that’s not really living up to its raison d’être. Democrats managed to elect a conservative governor in Louisiana, and the result was a Medicaid expansion that benefited hundreds of thousands of people. They’re worth it. Blue dogs aren’t extinct; they’re just barking differently now.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.