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Will 2016 Mark the Return of the Blue Dog Democrat?

Jason Kander's Senate campaign in Missouri hearkens back to the Democratic Party's recent past.

Tom Williams/Getty

Come November 8, Missouri will almost certainly vote for Donald Trump, going red for the fifth cycle in a row. But despite Trump’s dominance in the state—he has an ironclad lead of about eight points—Missouri is also on the verge of electing a second Democrat to the Senate: 35-year-old Jason Kander.

He has a sterling political resume. After the planes hit the Twin Towers on September 11, Kander, the son of a cop, enlisted in the Army and was sent to Afghanistan as an intelligence officer charged with rooting out corruption and drug trafficking. After eight years in the military, he served four in the state house and two as secretary of state. He has a solid record, a photogenic three-year-old, and a military discipline on the campaign trail that has helped him avoid gaffes and slip-ups.

He has also shown a knack for grabbing the national spotlight. An ad released in September of Kander assembling an AR-15 blindfolded while talking about gun safety and his commitment to the Second Amendment went viral (at least as far as political ads go). The ad perfectly summed up Kander’s appeal: It is decidedly bipartisan, advocating for “common sense” reforms while protecting the integrity of the right to own guns. Democrats were happy to see Kander advocating for increased gun safety legislation, while Republicans can be reassured that Kander will give them a voice. 

And in many ways, he is the ideal candidate to face off against Senator Roy Blunt. A Republican incumbent whose messy divorce is still political grist in Jefferson City, he has four children who all work on K Street and is now married to a woman regularly named one of the “top corporate lobbyists in Washington.” In an era when mistrust of Washington elites is at an all-time high, that makes Blunt vulnerable to the likes of Kander, a clean-cut veteran whose work in both Afghanistan and Missouri has revolved around anti-corruption. Kander has undercut Blunt’s most important asset—his undisputed ability to bring resources back to Missouri—by suggesting that Blunt can only bring home the bacon because he has ingratiated himself in a corrupt system. As a result, Blunt has had to graft himself to Donald Trump, whose popularity among conservative voters is his best shot at another term.

Kander, an incredibly energetic campaigner and fundraiser, has had luck break his way. Because other Senate races—most notably in Florida and Ohio—have been less competitive than expected, the Democratic Party has pointed both resources and enthusiasm toward Kander that might not otherwise have been there. The Democratic National Committee in September allocated an additional $1.5 million for pro-Kander advertising in the state, and that month saw Kander pull ahead of Blunt even as Hillary Clinton’s support was eroding nationally. They are now neck-and-neck“Jason is young, smart, disciplined, driven, an attractive candidate,” said one former state legislator who knows both candidates. “He’s made no mistakes that I can see in the last year and a half.”

But should Kander win this Senate fight, he would be the most prominent member of a new crop of white, young, male Democrats emerging in the South—politicians who would have fit neatly into a Democratic Party with an influential conservative wing, but are somewhat anachronistic in a party that has grown more liberal, urban, and diverse in the Obama era. This is the irony of Kander’s candidacy: If the Democratic Party wants to start winning in the South, it may have to reach towards its Blue Dog past, rather than its multi-ethnic present and future.

Twenty years ago, Missouri was a remnant of the solid South, a bulwark of conservative Democrats who were for guns and against abortion. As Jeffrey Smith has written in The Atlantic, Rod Jetton, then a young Republican up-and-comer in the Missouri legislature, won a seat in the state house in 2000, the year a new law requiring term limits for state legislators kicked into gear, ultimately sweeping out the old school Democrats who had run the state for decades. Jetton and his allies began methodically overhauling Missouri politics, recruiting talented young conservatives to run for state office and staking out issues that the Republican Party would own: abortion, gay marriage, immigration, and gun ownership. They passed laws that made English the official language of Missouri, a constitutional amendment against gay marriage, and a measure that criminalized stem cell research. With Republicans outflanking them on the right, the few Democrats that remained in the state house dwindled further. 

Ironically, Kander has adopted the GOP’s hardball tactics. His whole strategy rests on the idea that Missourians have grown tired of career politicians like Roy Blunt who have been grandfathered into political power. “He is Washington through and through,” said his communications director, Chris Hayden. “Jason believes that it’s time for a new generation of leadership.”  

In speeches and campaign ads, Kander often circles back to ethics reform. Jim Newell at Slate flagged a typical quote: “As you know, I did anti-corruption investigations as a military intelligence officer in Afghanistan. And then 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.” 

Kander is essentially running a biographical campaign grounded in character, not ideology. “He has broken with his party many times,” Hayden said in an interview earlier this month. “He was the first Democrat to come out against the Iran deal.” In an election season that has partly been defined by establishment vs. anti-establishment politics, Kander falls squarely in the latter camp. Not only is he running against Republican elites, but is also keeping his distance from Hillary Clinton. He appeared with Clinton at an early campaign rally, but hasn’t been seen with her for months and sat out the Democratic National Convention in July. 

Kander’s twist is that he doesn’t belong to the main anti-establishment wing of the Democratic Party—the Bernie Sanders wing. When we asked Hayden which senators Kander most admired and would want to work with in Congress, he listed Iowa’s Joni Ernst and Arkansas’s Tom Cotton, two fiercely conservative Republicans who, like Kander, are also veterans. 

It’s not uncommon in Missouri, the former state legislator told The New Republic. Democrats there are most successful when they can carve out a niche for themselves. Chris Koster is the state’s tough-on-crime attorney general. Kander is the patriotic harbinger of good government, his candidacy summed up in the words of his campaign spokesman: “ethics reform, rooting out corruption, serving his country.”

Kander isn’t the only young, white Democrat to run for office in the South, drumming up national media attention as the Next Big Thing in the region. Patrick Murphy, the Democratic Senate candidate in Florida, fits a similar mold. He’s moderate and charismatic, a rising star in state politics. Ditto Jimmy Carter’s grandson, Jason, a former state senator who ran for Georgia governor two years ago. They all have moderate stances on the issues, tailor-made to appeal to white voters in the South. Their policies are so bland, indeed, that they rely heavily on their youth to manufacture enthusiasm among voters. At the heart of their strategies is the idea that old order is corrupt and decrepit.

Even running neck-in-neck with Blunt, Kander has shown that Democrats have a shot in the South if they rise above partisanship and engage in anti-establishment politics. His performance in Missouri will likely be seen as a blueprint for Democrats in the region and other conservative areas.

The problem for the Democratic Party is that, if these candidates begin to win, it will introduce new tensions to a congressional coalition that has grown accustomed to being more uniformly liberal. Kander is a throwback from the conservative wing of the Democratic Party—the so-called Blue Dogs who were all but flushed out of Congress in the revanchist backlash to President Barack Obama that began in the 2010 midterms. Their influence has been supplanted by the coalition Obama cobbled together: women, African-Americans, Latinos, and young voters, who together constitute the future of the Democratic Party at the national level.

Blue Dog Democrats often frustrated the national party—to say nothing of the left—by refusing to tow the party line: Think of the unseemly deal-making that the Democrats had to undergo to get a single vote for Obamacare from Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson (which ended up being unnecessary anyway). Kander’s opposition to the Iran deal, to say nothing of his desire to work with far-right senators like Ernst and Cotton, suggest that he wouldn’t exactly be a rubber stamp for a Clinton White House. Of course, Kander is preferable to Blunt, just as Joe Manchin is preferable to any West Virginia Republican. The question is whether the Democrats, who have turned left over the last eight years, are capable of putting together a stable and coherent governing coalition, particularly in an institution like the Senate, which tilts power toward rural, conservative areas.

But having a conflicted, raucous coalition may be preferable to the alternative. The Republican Party in the past decade has gone through a series of purges that have resulted in a homogenous, shrinking party obsessed with the purity of its members. And look where the GOP is now.