PERRYVILLE, Mo. — Lucas Kunce’s life story seems built for a populist Senate campaign in Missouri.
He grew up in a modest neighborhood in Jefferson City where a local grocer let his mother float checks when his family couldn’t afford the bill. He attended Yale University on grants, came back to Missouri for law school and served 13 years as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, including in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He’s unwilling to tread lightly and is unapologetically outspoken. He wants to “break the system” and refuses to take money from corporate political funds.
“The only people I ever want to owe are the people in my neighborhood who took care of me as a kid — and our family — and people just like them around this state,” Kunce said last month at a coffee shop in Independence.
That’s what Kunce’s populist campaign message boils down to. For too long, he argues, the interests of corporations and billionaires — not working people — have steered policy in the U.S. Kunce says he wants to “fundamentally change who has power in the country.”
But he said that message, and his refusal to fundraise the same old way, turned off political consultants when he shopped his candidacy around.
“The people in power right now in both parties are people who are invested in keeping the system how it is, in a way that doesn’t work,” Kunce said.
Kunce is among the front-runners in the Democratic primary for Missouri’s open U.S. Senate seat. He faces Trudy Busch Valentine and Spencer Toder, among other lesser-known candidates, on Aug. 2 for his party’s nomination for the seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Roy Blunt.
Kunce’s populist style and Ivy League résumé have won him national attention, including profiles in the Washington Post Magazine and POLITICO and appearances and spots on MSNBC and FOX News. That has helped him raise more money than any other candidate in the race despite his refusal to accept donations from pharmaceutical executives, corporate political action committees and federal lobbyists.
And in a state that has been trending toward Republicans for a generation, Kunce is betting his message will resonate with voters who have left the Democratic party — especially if his November opponent turns out to be former Gov. Eric Greitens, who resigned from office in 2018 to avoid impeachment and to settle a felony charge.
“I have been and continue to be an everyday Missourian,” Kunce said, “and that’s what the people want.”
Early life in Jefferson City
Kunce focuses heavily in his stump speech on his early life.
“The only reason we made it through that time is not because the institutions were there for us,” Kunce said. “It’s not because the billionaire class was there for us. It’s not because the shareholders were there for us.”
He said neighbors stepped up to take care of his family — passing the plate at church and dropping by with casseroles.
“It’s beautiful. That’s how we know how to take care of each other,” Kunce told a crowd in Perryville last month.
Coming from that background, Kunce said Yale was like another world. His classmates spent breaks on European vacations while he earned money by having experiments done on him at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
He ran — unsuccessfully — for the Missouri House as soon as he was eligible in 2006, got his law degree at Mizzou and then joined the Marines, inspired by a Vietnam veteran who worked at his family’s church.
He’s left now with mixed feelings about his time in Afghanistan. He said the government sucked up money to give to defense contractors because members of Congress own their stock. The government lied to people, he tells voters, and spent trillions abroad. But it fights over every penny on domestic spending.
Those “same type of idiots who went to Yale,” he said, tell everyday Americans, “give us your sons and daughters, give us your trillions of dollars. We’re building something real and lasting here.”
“And it was all a lie,” he said.
After serving at the Pentagon, Kunce landed a job at the American Economic Liberties Project, an anti-monopoly think tank in Washington, D.C., where he is paid $120,000 a year. A divorced father of two sons, he now lives in Independence, where he moved in 2020 just months before launching his Senate campaign.
Before that, he last lived in Missouri in 2007. It’s earned him criticism from some who say he only came back to run for office, a notion he vehemently dismissed.
“Go ahead, attack veterans all day long,” Kunce said. “Like, it just shows that you don’t understand how normal people live, you don’t understand service, you don’t understand what it means to sign up for the military and serve your country. Should someone who serves their country lose their home and where they come from…because they go to Iraq and Afghanistan? I don’t think so.”
Kunce tells voters wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are emblematic of a problem with who has power in this country.
“And (defense contractors) have so much influence in Congress that they can keep us in wars or keep us from doing things that are decent for folks like in my own community,” Kunce said.
That’s why he wants to prohibit members of Congress from owning and trading individual stocks. Democrats in Congress are already working to pass such legislation, but it’s slow going.
The idea appealed to one man Kunce ran into outside a coffee shop in Independence last month.
When Kunce mentioned he was running for the U.S. Senate, the man — a retired member of the United Auto Workers and a Navy veteran — invoked former President Donald Trump, telling Kunce to “drain the swamp.
But he encouraged Kunce to be more like President Harry Truman, a Democrat who, as a senator, led a committee investigating war spending waste and profiteering during World War II. And he liked what Kunce had to say about banning Congress from owning stocks and refusing PAC money.
As he walked away, he told Kunce he’d look for his name at the polls.
“And I’ll tell other people,” he said.
On the issues
He’s one of four children. When his little sister was born with heart problems, his parents went bankrupt paying for her medical expenses.
Kunce says his campaign focuses on who has power — and uplifting the people who don’t.
He’d like to see more spending on the home front and pledges to introduce long-shot legislation to establish a “Marshall Plan for the Midwest.” The bipartisan infrastructure bill passed earlier this year by Congress isn’t nearly enough, he said.
Kunce wants to break up big agriculture conglomerates and ban foreign ownership of U.S. farmland. Not only that, he wants to break up corporate monopolies in general. He supports a $15-an-hour minimum wage, favors universal health care and decries “pharmaceutical cartels” that increase the price of insulin and other vital drugs.
“I watched my dad work in the same job his entire life…you know, first job out of school because his little girl had to have a heart surgery, and he couldn’t leave because of her condition,” he said.
He also promises to fight back against “Big-Brother-style attacks on abortion access,” though he hasn’t always been on that side of the debate.
When he was running for the Missouri House in 2006 he told the Yale Daily News that he was against abortion. Now, he says he supports abolishing the Senate filibuster to write into federal law Roe vs. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court case that guaranteed the right to an abortion until it was overturned last month.
Kunce said that he had grown up in a pro-life family but that things changed when he went to Afghanistan and saw people who had to “live in a Big Brother government” where money gives someone access to whatever they want.
Asked how he can convince Democrats who have always supported abortion rights that he’s had a genuine change of heart and isn’t saying what he has to in order to get through a primary election, Kunce said, “I mean, I’m 100% pro-choice, so there’s just — that’s it.”
His change of position on such a core Democratic issue has earned him comparisons to the GOP Senate frontrunner, Eric Greitens, who was a pro-choice Democrat before running as a Republican for Missouri governor in 2016.
The comparisons between Kunce and Greitens don’t stop there.
Both Kunce and Greitens have top-tier education, military experience, lofty political aspirations and an unfiltered approach. Both have penchants for feats of strength at public events and project G.I. bravado — and neither held office before running statewide.
But Kunce called any comparison to Greitens “pretty absurd.”
“The guy is a complete criminal,” Kunce said of Greitens. “He’s done terrible things — stole from his veterans charity, assaulted people.”
Adam Sommer, a Warrensburg attorney who hosts the Heartland POD, a Missouri political podcast, said as soon as Kunce hit the ground he was running ads that looked and sounded like Greitens’ 2016 ads — with a candidate who’s “not even that much different looking, just taller.”
“Other than that,” said Sommer, who has endorsed Toder, “it’s like those old panels from the Sunday comics, like, ‘Spot the seven differences between these two pictures.’”
Turning Missouri blue
As recently as 2012, all but two statewide officials in Missouri were Democrats.
But the map of Missouri voters gets redder each cycle. Kunce swung through southeast Missouri last month — Perryville, Howardsville and Dexter — where the Democratic Party once dominated but now barely exists.
Vanessa Frazier, executive director of Howardville Community Betterment, said she decided to contribute to Kunce after he came to visit largely Black communities in the Bootheel. She said she has told numerous campaigns not to roll into the community at the last minute during a general election expecting voters to fall in line.
Catrina Robinson, mayor of the nearly all-Black small town of Hayti Heights, said the same.
“When I first met him, I thought, ‘OK, you know, it’s election time. People come because it’s election time,’” Robinson said. “And then when he came down here the second time, I knew then that, ‘Oh, he really cares.’”
Southeast Missouri Democrats who came out to meet him thought maybe Kunce could be the one to turn that tide.
Jim Martin, chair of the Perry County democratic committee, said Kunce has his vote in the primary — because he’s been there.
Besides that, he likes Kunce’s style.
“Politicians don’t like the term aggressive,” Martin said, “but we need somebody who’s aggressive.”
Kunce calls Greitens a criminal at every chance he gets. He called Mark McCloskey — a Republican candidate who infamously pointed a gun at Black Lives Matter protestors in St. Louis — a “millionaire doughboy from the fanciest neighborhood in St. Louis.”
Connor Lounsbury, Kunce’s deputy campaign manager, said the Democratic Party has a real problem “that when the other side says insane shit, we just bury our heads in the sand.” Kunce is the only one responding, he said.
Kunce added that Marines are taught not to look away when they face a threat.
“They tell you to face it head on, and eliminate it, because otherwise, it’s just gonna grow stronger,” Kunce said, “and so (Attorney General) Eric Schmitt and Eric Greitens — they’re a threat to our communities, they’re a threat to everything that I stand for.
“So why would I just sit and wait all the way until August like and let them grow?”
Missouri Rep. Rasheen Aldridge Jr., D-St. Louis, said Kunce’s weakness as a candidate was that he wasn’t a woman or person of color. But he shows up as an ally and has been“unapologetic and bold”
“(I) truly feel that he understands how these issues impact people that don’t even look like him — without fully understanding, but sympathizing and knowing the work that needs to be done,” Aldridge said.
Kunce said he thinks it’ll take the right person to win as a Democrat in Missouri — an outsider.
More of the same — on top of Supreme Court decisions on abortion rights, the climate and gun control seen as huge losses for liberals — may leave would-be Democratic voters feeling dejected.
“If there’s someone like me who grew up like everyday Missourians, who knows how these decisions are going to hurt us and that they can believe in and they believe it’s going to do something differently…I think it’d be motivating.”
As for his reputation as a no-nonsense, unfiltered candidate, he doesn’t have much to say.
“I’m just myself,” Kunce said. “I’m a Marine. I grew up in a working class neighborhood. Like, I am what I am.”
This article by Allison Kite is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.