Jason Kander May Have Made a Big Mistake

by Nathan L. Gonzales February 22, 2017 · 9:16 AM EST

Missouri Democrat Jason Kander came close to getting elected to the Senate after he burst onto the scene last year with a memorable campaign ad and a strong challenge to GOP incumbent Roy Blunt. Now Kander is widely viewed as a rising star in the Democratic Party, but his postelection choices may complicate future bids for higher office.

Last year, Kander gained national attention for his ad, “Background Checks,” in which he reassembled a rifle blindfolded. It was one of the most memorable ads of the cycle, if not recent campaign history.

Kander had the momentum in the race against Blunt until the final couple of weeks when Hillary Clinton’s support collapsed and Donald Trump went on to win the Show Me State 57 percent to 38 percent. The top of the ballot was simply too much for Kander to overcome, and he lost 49 percent to 46 percent. 

Despite the defeat, Kander was regarded as a bright spot for Democrats on an election night full of forgettable moments. He’s now viewed as the type of candidate who could lead the party back to majorities in Congress.

Kander leveraged that attention into increasing his national profile with cable news appearances, joining the board of Priorities USA and starting his own voting rights group. But those postelection associations run contrary to the reason why he got this far.

Kander’s rise was facilitated by the fact that he wasn’t easily connected to Washington, D.C., or the national Democratic Party.

As the Senate race progressed, GOP strategists admitted they didn’t have a lot to use against the 35-year old secretary of state who served in Afghanistan and had just two terms in the state legislature. That didn’t stop Republicans from trying, but nothing seemed to stick.

Now Kander has joined up with Priorities USA, the largest pro-Clinton super PAC. Sure, he’s only on the board, but that will be lost on the cutting-room floor when Republicans prepare their attack ads for his next race.

“Let America Vote” is probably ambiguous enough to not hurt Kander and may even help him with some moderate voters, but the group’s board could be more problematic. The board of advisers includes some national Democratic activists (Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, and Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List), an actor (Bradley Whitford of “The West Wing”), and three veterans of the Obama administration, among others. 

There isn’t a natural place for Kander to run in the near term, but when he does, independence will be critical. Trump just won Missouri by nearly 20 points and Democrats lost the governorship, attorney general’s office, as well as the race for Kander’s former position.

Sen. Claire McCaskill is the only remaining Democrat elected statewide in Missouri. She’s up for re-election in 2018 in what is expected to be a difficult race (which we have initially rated as a Toss-Up). If she decides to retire, Kander will be the first person Democrats call.

His alignment with Priorities USA will open the door to Democratic donors all over the country, and Kander’s work against voter suppression could increase his profile among the Democratic activists. But when he runs for something again, Kander’s problems won’t be fundraising. He’ll be able to attract dollars based on the reputation of his last campaign. But now he’ll have to answer for his connections to Democrats far beyond Missouri.

If Kander's next step is to run for president, that's an entirely different calculation altogether (and probably another column).