After a year of terrible losses, Democrats around the country have been searching for a handful of silver linings and moral victories to give them hope for the future. Many have looked to Jason Kander’s impressive – if ultimately unsuccessful – campaign for U.S. Senate in Missouri for inspiration and lessons on how to move forward. So when Kander came to Des Moines last night to speak at Progress Iowa’s annual Holiday Party fundraiser, he was greeted by a record turnout of Iowa progressives for the event, eager to hear what he had to say.
Despite Donald Trump defeating Hillary Clinton by a 19-point margin in Missouri, Kander ran behind Blunt by just three points. He earned more than 228,000 more votes than Clinton statewide. Most noteworthy, however, was the way in which he did it – running on a set of progressive policy ideas in a red state. And of course, there was the TV ad where Kander advocated for gun background checks as he assembled a rifle blindfolded, named by many as the best political ad of the year.
Kander began his speech by noting he could easily deliver a lot of anti-Trump red meat, but instead wanted to focus on how Democrats could do better in the years to come.
“We can’t unite the party and start winning elections again if all we do is express our outrage at the latest antics of Donald Trump,” Kander told the crowd at Des Moines’ Performing Arts building. “Democrats tried that in 2016 and it actually did not work out all that well. So going forward, what we have to do is make sure we are not defined as either pro-Trump or anti-Trump. To be progressive is to be interested in solving problems.”
He recounted how he has over-performed the top-of-ticket both times he’s run statewide in Missouri, the first of which was his successful campaign for Secretary of State. Even as he came up short against Blunt, Kander was still able to keep the well-known incumbent under 50%.
“How did I outperform the presidential ticket in a red state in every single county? I did it by being unafraid to put forward a progressive argument based on progressive values that was unapologetic,” Kander explained. “I did it by not in any way apologizing for the letter next to my name on the ballot or trying to run a conservative campaign.”
Kander quickly noted that he didn’t mean his observation to be a criticism of the Clinton campaign, but rather of the wider trend in recent years of Democratic campaigns that play it too safe or that don’t advocate for what they really believe in.
“I told audiences that black lives matter in Ferguson and in rural areas of my state,” he continued. “I told folks that the minimum wage mattered when I was with janitors in downtown Kansas City who were underpaid, and I did the same thing with rural chambers of commerce all across my state … In each case I have been unafraid to tell voters that lifting up people they don’t know lifts them up too.”
That method of campaigning came early on for Kander, he explained, during his first run at age 26 for State House in Kansas City.
“So as Democrats consider the way forward as a party out of power, my humble suggestion is this: we should begin by making our argument to absolutely everyone. I am not interested in conceding any voters to the Republicans. I am not interested in ever again having a national strategy that says we’re just going to get enough votes to win … If I’ve learned nothing else from being a progressive in a red state, it’s this: voters will forgive you for holding a position they may not agree with so long as they know that you are really saying what you believe and you include them in your vision.”
He also addressed the sense of discouragement that was readily apparent from the group of Democrats.
“I know that it’s hard right now … As a party we have lost elections before, but it hasn’t always felt like this,” Kander told the crowd. “There’s a part of you that feels like you want to quit, and I understand that. But it is more important right now than maybe it has ever been to … stay involved. If you had even the slightest inclination to quit, the slightest inclination to throw your hands up in the air and just blame your neighbors for how they chose to cast their ballot, then I came here tonight to wake you up and beg you to get back in that ring. Because a strong, safe, vibrant democracy is not something we get to take for granted.”
Kander, who is credited as being the first from the millennial generation to win statewide office, pointed to the future of leadership within the party.
“There is a new generation stepping forward in this country right now,” Kander said. “Don’t believe anybody that tells you that this generation is lazy or that it is selfish. This is a generation that is more interested in solutions than ideology.”
Many have wondered if he’ll be one of those leaders going forward, whether he’ll attempt another major run for public office. Kander told the crowd he wasn’t sure.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do next or even whether I’ll ever put my name on a ballot again, but I know that I’m not leaving this cause behind,” he said. “Because to truly care about this country is to demonstrate that you care about the politics the same way when you’re winning as when you’re losing.”
The audience reacted extremely well to Kander’s speech, interrupting him with applause and cheers at many points throughout. Several attendees told Starting Line afterward that it was the most hopeful they’ve been since the election. And it certainly drew a more lively and excited response from a group of Iowa Democrats than this writer has seen them show for any recent Iowa candidate and even most of the presidential contenders during the Iowa Caucus.
Afterward, Progress Iowa auctioned off items from each of the speakers, which also included Sister Simone Campbell of Nuns on the Bus and Congressman Dave Loebsack. Kander offered up a signed blindfold in reference of his TV ad – it fetched $350 from a donor.
So, since many people will wonder, was Kander’s trip to Iowa any more than meets the eye? Kander was invited up to speak by an old high school friend, Matt Sinovic, the executive director of Progresss Iowa. The two were on the same baseball and debate teams in Kansas City. He also recently key noted a young progressives event in Tennessee.
Regardless of what Kander ends up doing with his career, based on the reaction from the room of Iowa Democrats, there’s certainly a base of people eager to back his ideas on the future of the Democratic Party.
by Pat Rynard