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Challenger to Hawley: Quit Your ‘Fake Populism’

How far can authenticity take Lucas Kunce—a Marine veteran and proud nerd—in red Missouri?
by Jim Swift
March 14, 2023
Challenger to Hawley: Quit Your ‘Fake Populism’
(Composite by Hannah Yoest / Photos: GettyImages)

A person’s watch can tell you a lot about him or her. Watches can project authority and power, as Vlad Putin likes to do; they can convey humility and solidarity, as with Pope Francis’s cheap Casio. The message of a calculator watch is simple: I am a nerd, it proclaims. And Democratic senate challenger Lucas Kunce, who says he has played Magic: The Gathering “in every place he’s lived,” is nothing if not a nerd.

Kunce is embarking on his second Senate run in two years. After losing in a 2022 Democratic primary, he’s now campaigning to face fleet-footed Republican incumbent Josh Hawley in 2024.

Kunce’s run for Hawley’s seat is actually the 40-year-old’s third campaign for elected office. He made an unsuccessful bid for the statehouse in 2006 while still in law school at the University of Missouri. After graduating he joined the Marines, and he did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan before transitioning to the Pentagon, where he worked on arms control measures. He’s since left active duty, joined the reserves, and taken a job at the anti-monopoly-focused American Economic Liberties Project in Washington.

After Sen. Roy Blunt announced he would not seek re-election, a crowd of Republicans entered the primary, but none of Missouri’s prominent elected Democrats did the same. Kunce leapt at the opportunity to run—but then Trudy Busch Valentine, heiress to the Busch beer fortune, announced a late, self-funded campaign. She edged out Kunce to secure the party’s nomination. Even though the 2022 midterms were largely a success story for Democrats, Busch would go on to lose to Attorney General Eric Schmitt by 13 points.

But Kunce is now back to try again. Although he rejects corporate money entirely, his unsuccessful 2022 run set up a grassroots network that could provide him with the resources he’ll need to mount a real challenge to Hawley. He’s also gotten endorsements from some big Missouri celebrities: Jon Hamm and Andy Cohen. “We’re not starting from scratch,” he says.

But back for a moment to Kunce’s watch. In his campaign’s launch video, Running, which lampoons Josh Hawley for running on January 6 after inciting the insurrectionary mob, Kunce’s watch is featured quite prominently.

So I asked him about it.

When Kunce was a kid growing up in Hartsburg, Missouri—a small town between Jefferson City and Columbia—he lost his prized watch, a Casio CA-53W with a built-in calculator. (It’s the one Marty McFly wears in Back to the Future II.)

It hadn’t come easily into his family in the first place. Medical bills had forced them into bankruptcy, putting little indulgences like a new watch out of the question; he had pined for the nerdy Casio for years. His dad saved up for it and eventually got it for him; Kunce says “it was the best birthday present I ever had.” But he only had it a few months before he lost it while kicking a soccer ball around at a local Catholic school. “I hadn’t taken it off or anything,” Kunce tells me, “but it must have just flown off while we were playing. And, I could still remember like a panic and us going back there and we walked, we walked every foot of that field like twice, and never found it.”

Nowadays the watch retails for about $20, so Kunce has a replacement for his beloved childhood gift. But losing the original watch was an important growing-up experience. “There was no way my dad was ever gonna be able to get me another one. And so it was just one of those real lessons in life . . . if you lose something, it’s gone. Like, some things are gone forever.”

Now that Kunce is better off, he has “quite a few” Casios. “They last forever,” Kunce tells me. “I think they look fine. They’re not like a huge thing on my hand. And they do everything that I want ’em to do. Why would I pay more for a watch?”

A nerd, then, and a practical, down-to-earth one. And the calculator watch has become an emblem for Kunce as he starts up his populist campaign against Hawley.

Kunce certainly wasn’t born with a Rolex ticking on his wrist, but he has caught a few good breaks. He got into Yale, although it took a need-based grant for him to be able to afford the cost (one reason he eagerly backs the Pell Grant program). Following law school at Mizzou, he got an LLM at Columbia while on active duty with the Marines.

Kunce is quick to draw contrasts between his own upbringing and life choices and those of the senator he is challenging. Josh Hawley grew up with a “banker daddy,” as Kunce puts it in an ad. Then, Kunce tells me, Hawley “went to the fanciest high school in the state,” and later, “when he graduated law school—you can tell a lot about somebody when they graduate school—where did they go, right? The dude went to the fanciest corporate elite corporate lobbyist law firm in D.C.”

Kunce draws a further contrast in his experience of the war in Iraq versus the more remote experience of his opponent. “My experience in Iraq was running a police training team through towns like Habbaniyah, Fallujah, and Ramadi, trying to bring everybody home safe and watch, you know, and train the local police,” Kunce says. Hawley did not serve in the military, and so his experience of the war, Kunce noted (referring to a 2021 Guardian article), “was that he popped a bunch of popcorn and thought that it was just this fun little game that he could watch on TV” at the British boarding school where he was teaching for a year. Kunce is blunt: Hawley saw the war “as entertainment . . . while many of his peers were dying.”

Kunce is proud of his military service and shares with me his inspiration to join the Marines: his encounters with a local Vietnam veteran named Al, whom Kunce met while volunteering with his family at his church’s soup kitchen.

Al would ask him and his siblings what chores they wanted to do during their shifts, and, thinking they’d pull one over on Al, the Kunce kids would always volunteer for dishwasher duty. “All we had to do at the soup kitchen was like, throw these plates into the machine and walk away. We totally thought we were just scamming this dude.” After a while, Al realized why the kids were so eager for that chore in particular: The Kunce family must not have a dishwasher. He was right.

“This guy figured that out, and a couple years later when he upgraded his kitchen at his house, you know, he actually—he loaded that dishwasher up in his big blue pickup truck, he drove it out to our house, and he had it installed,” Kunce says. The veteran’s generosity typified not only him, but the culture of Missouri as Kunce encountered it growing up. And when he got a taste of it, he had to pay it forward:

That’s the way everyday people in this state take care of each other. Al was a veteran from Vietnam. He kept that sort of, you know, service mentality his entire life. He passed it on to me. He would take me to the Marine Corps League out in Apache Flats, where I’d meet these guys and listen to their stories, and they inspired me to join the Marine Corps and, you know, go to Iraq once, Afghanistan twice, and lead a lifetime of service.

Lucas Kunce strikes me as a populist from another era. A populist Democrat with a wonkish appetite for economic policy, he looks up to Harry Truman, Missouri’s only president. (Kunce actually lives two blocks from Truman’s house in Independence, now a historic site. He tells me he can even see it from his bathroom window.) Before Truman was dragooned by FDR into becoming vice president, he was an irascible senator best known, as Kunce notes, for having “held hearings against corrupt defense contractors.” Given Kunce’s experiences as an arms control negotiator in the Pentagon, that particular Truman anecdote is particularly resonant.

“He did so many great things, integrated the military, even though he knew it was gonna cost in the South, and tried to get real healthcare for everyday Americans,” Kunce says. He also admires Paul Wellstone, the late Minnesota senator and staunch liberal, but at the end of the day, “I wanna just be my own guy.”

That means taking positions that might not already enjoy majority support or even visibility in the chamber today. Antitrust is one such priority for Kunce. He points out that breaking up monopolies wasn’t yet registering as a major issue for voters or politicians when he joined the American Economic Liberties Project, the nonprofit focused on trust-busting. (The New York Times describes its founder, Sarah Miller, as someone who “wants to break up everything.”)

Kunce says that if he were elected to the Senate, he would welcome the challenge of forming partnerships with whoever is willing to collaborate with him. “I would just try to find people who work with me on any of the important issues. I see people on both sides who are interested in antitrust now, which wasn’t the case” just a few years ago.

In addition to antitrust and competition, Kunce cares about agriculture and foreign ownership—which, while not quite a marquee issue on the national level, is certainly a hot topic in Missouri. He tells me he admires the work of the Democratic senator from Montana, Jon Tester, on this issue; Tester recently introduced a bipartisan bill that would restrict foreign powers like China from purchasing American agricultural land. In Missouri, the state House just passed a similar ban on Chinese ownership of farmland; that legislation ended a roughly decade-long period when the state’s longstanding restrictions on foreign ownership were relaxed. Busch landed some early hits on Schmitt in their Senate race last year on this issue—he had voted in 2013 to permit Chinese ownership of agricultural land—but he came around. Hawley did, too, but his about-face has been somewhat less convincing.

One area where Hawley and Kunce agree—albeit for wildly different reasons—is Big Tech. I asked Kunce how his approach differs from his opponent’s.

Hawley recently introduced a bill that would prevent those under 16 years old from using social media without parental consent. (Under current federal law, the threshold is 13.) Kunce argues that a much wider lens is necessary to properly understand and address the problem young users are actually facing on social media apps.

What [Hawley is] doing is he’s targeting the very people who are being victimized, and he considers that a solution. . . . The way I approach things is certain corporations have too much power. We shouldn’t have monopoly power in this country. We need to enforce our antitrust laws. We need to mend them where we can. We need to stop putting judges on the bench who come from the same corporate law firms that he worked at.

Kunce argues that Hawley’s approach is not only irrelevant to the problems at hand but also cynical.

He claims he’s a populist, he wants to do something about this. He votes for every fancy white-shoe, corporate law firm judge that’s been . . . put in front of him.

He just wants some attention for saying that conservatives are being targeted, whether that’s true or not, and he doesn’t actually want to do anything that empowers individuals against the system. And so, you know, for me, that’s, that’s fake populism.

Hawley’s “fake populism” is perhaps nowhere clearer than in his actions on January 6th. That day began with the young senator infamously raising his fist in support of MAGA crowds; by the afternoon, he was fearfully scuttling through the halls of the Capitol to escape the mob.

Tucker Carlson has made a disingenuous attempt to exonerate Hawley. The Fox News host appears to take the problem to have been merely Hawley running, which many politicians were doing, rather than Hawley running from the mob he had encouraged not only by his raised fist but by his prominent support for Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election.

The senator’s hypocritical actions on January 6th have offended his aspiring challenger. Here’s Kunce:

He had an opportunity to actually stand up for America in that situation, go to the crowd that he’d helped incite and try to redirect them. But, you know, again, we’re talking about a guy with no service, no history of sticking his neck out for anyone but himself.

And he didn’t do that. He ran away. He showed supreme cowardice. And I tell you right now, if in the Marines, in Iraq or Afghanistan, anybody, any of us had shown cowardice like that, we’d have been court-martialed. Right? It’s pretty crazy. Yeah. And I think that it’s the real contrast here. . . . He thinks it’s gonna get him power. He thinks it’s gonna [give him a] shortcut . . . [to the] Republican presidential nomination or whatever.

Everywhere Kunce looks, he finds another angle of attack on Hawley’s man-of-the-people act. Much more amusing and less alarming than Hawley’s January 6th actions are his longstanding problems with residency. He appears to live primarily in Northern Virginia these days; when asked to pick a favorite BBQ place as part of a bet between senators during the Super Bowl, Hawley named one in Kansas rather than Missouri. (Kunce is himself partial to A Little BBQ Joint in Independence, for those keeping score at home.)

“Everyone who’s a normal Missourian . . . understands how everyday Missourians live,” Kunce says after regaling me with the BBQ story. Hawley has “got no clue about that.”

Kunce signs off by inviting me out to see him on the campaign trail sometime. Journalists have found him in places that don’t put up a lot of votes in an election—places like Hayti Heights in the state’s bootheel along the Arkansas border, where sewage has to be pumped using a generator setup operated by the mayor. That’s everyday life for at least a few normal Missourians. Kunce told the American Prospect the scenario reminded him of nothing so much as things he’d seen in war-devastated Iraq.

Missouri grows a deeper red with each election; the state’s Democrats are in disarray, divided between cities on opposite sides of the state. But if Kunce keeps showing up where Josh Hawley hasn’t, perhaps he can grow a coalition to topple him. Representing the people’s interests—I’ve heard that’s what authentic populism is all about.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.