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Why Democrats might actually have a shot in Missouri's U.S. Senate race

Two headshots of a man, left, and a woman, right, show Lucas Kunce and Trudy Busch-Valentine.
KCUR
Lucas Kunce and Trudy Busch Valentine are seeking the Democratic nomination for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt.

“While it’s an uphill battle, there’s certainly a chance,” says UMKC political scientist Debra Leiter.

While the Republican primary for U.S. Senate in Missouri is grabbing the lion’s share of attention, there’s also a competitive race on the Democratic side.

A new Emerson College poll out this week shows Anheuser-Busch heiress Trudy Busch Valentine leading Marine Corps veteran Lucas Kunce by a few percentage points, 39% to 35%.

Either could have a shot at winning in November in a state where Donald Trump defeated Joe Biden by nearly 15 points in the 2020 presidential election.

“While it’s an uphill battle, there’s certainly a chance,” says University of Missouri-Kansas City political scientist Debra Leiter.

Leiter offers two reasons why Democrats have an outside shot this year.

First, she says, while Missouri is solidly Republican, you don’t have to go too far back in time when Democrats were competitive in the state. Former Sen. Claire McCaskill last won re-election in 2012, before she was defeated in 2018 by Republican Josh Hawley.

“The second one is that the candidates for senator on the Republican side are perhaps a little more extreme than the party was expecting,” Leiter says.

All of the Republican candidates are pro-gun rights and anti-abortion rights, and all have actively courted the endorsement of former President Donald Trump.

But Leiter is referring in particular to former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, who’s been under fire for his “RINO hunting” ad — in which he threatens violence against fellow Republicans — and for the abuse allegations leveled by his former wife Sheena Greitens in an acrimonious child custody case.

Among the two leading Democrats, there aren't too many political differences. Both Kunce, a lawyer, and Valentine, a nurse, support abortion rights and increased gun regulations.

On her website, Valentine calls for an assault weapons ban. Kunce supports more extensive background checks and red flag laws.

Both have made health care an issue. Valentine says that everyone “deserves quality health care.” Kunce wants universal health care.

Given their similar views on the issues, Leiter says it’s necessary to look at how the two Democrats are campaigning.

Valentine has taken an understated approach on the campaign trail.

“Her focus has been on cooling the temperature, so to speak,” Leiter says.

In her ads, Valentine emphasizes that she’s a nurse, has worked in hospice care and is a mother of six.

She tends to downplay her wealth. In her ads, she simply says, “I was born into a beer brewing family,” not mentioning that the Busch family is one of the wealthiest in Missouri. In 2020, Forbes estimated the family fortune at $17.6 billion.

Valentine has been a major Democratic donor for a long time. Leiter says it’s therefore not surprising she’s picked up a lot of union endorsements as well as the endorsement of Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Kansas City.

“Lucas Kunce, on the other hand, is taking a different strategy for Democrats,” Leiter says. “He’s been appealing to a lot of rural voters, disaffected voters, voters frustrated with the current economic and political position.”

In Kunce’s TV ads, he talks about his family going broke when his sister got sick and how his neighbors pitched in to help. “No family should have to go through that,” he says in ads supporting universal healthcare.

He also stresses his service in the Marine Corps and connects that service to his support of abortion rights.

“When Lucas joined the Marines, it was to serve the community that took care of me,” one of his ads states. “Now our democracy, Roe v Wade, it’s all on the line, and I’m still ready to serve.”

Kunce has raised $4.7 million, more than any other candidate in the race, including the Republicans, according to his latest campaign finance reports.

The reports show Valentine has raised $3.4 million, but she’s also loaned her campaign $3 million — a fraction of the $67 million net worth she reported on her financial disclosure report.

The other Democrat in the race, Spencer Toder, a small business owner from St. Louis, has raised $1.5 million and has loaned his campaign $882,500.

The Emerson College poll shows Toder with just 3% support. But it also shows 22% of likely Democratic voters remain undecided.

Leiter says how Kunce and Valentine approach the campaign could signal how other Democrats run in the future.

“That sort of more aggressive, combative stance versus a facilitatory, moderate stance reflects both the two candidate strategies and kind of a larger question of how Democrats can win in states that are trending towards the Republican party,” Leiter says.

Corrected: July 29, 2022 at 10:46 AM CDT
An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that former Rep. William Lacy Clay Sr. of St. Louis had endorsed Trudy Busch Valentine. He actually endorsed Lucas Kunce.
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