Democratic candidates for the US Senate are trying to win back Missouri


The days of the Show-Me State as a political indicator are over.

For decades until the 2000s, Missouri voters picked the winner in nearly every presidential race. But over the past 20 years, the electorate has drifted to the right, turning increasingly red as Republicans have taken control of state offices and seats in Washington, DC.

After Donald Trump’s 15-point victory in the state in 2020, the race to replace U.S. Senator Roy Blunt in November heavily favors the eventual Republican nominee. But with a chaotic GOP primary field that includes former Gov. Eric Greitens — who, in addition to past scandals, faces new abuse allegations and in-party resistance — Democratic primary favorites see possible opening.

Lucas Kunce, a mid-Missouri-born Navy veteran, calls himself a populist and spends his days on the campaign trail denouncing established politicians, entrenched lobbyists and corporate giants. Trudy Busch Valentine, an heiress to the Anheuser-Busch fortune, aims to rise above political back and forth and restore compassion and civility to Capitol Hill. Spencer Toder, a St. Louis entrepreneur, used data, technology, and volunteers to make an immediate impact at the state level and garner support.

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(Eight other Democratic candidates are included in the Aug. 2 primary ballots, but none have attracted the funding, name recognition or campaign support to be considered a serious contender.)

The basic platforms of the three frontrunners are relatively similar — ending the Senate filibuster to advance Democratic policy priorities, codifying abortion rights into federal law, advancing gun safety measures tougher fires, expand access to health care and protect the right to vote. But the delivery and framing of those platforms has become distinct as candidates seek both the party nomination and a winning formula for Democrats to compete for across the state.

“Keep the corporate lords out of control”

A native of Jefferson City and a graduate of the University of Missouri Law School, Kunce spent 13 years as a naval officer. His campaign message is global and ruthless: the institutions that govern the United States are broken and have left Missouri and Midtown behind.

Kunce clung to popular national issues throughout the race: banning stock trading for members of Congress and ridding the world of dependence on Russian oil and gas among them.

He references his military experiences when talking about abortion bans, calling them the work of “Big Brother governments” like in “Iraq and Afghanistan.” He has proposed a “Marshall Plan for the Midwest” for a new era of domestic investment, countering the “big old vacuum cleaner” that he says Wall Street and the coasts are taking to the region and “sucking up the wealth from it.” He wants to abolish corporate political action committees and crack down on corporate monopolies.

“How can we keep the corporate overlords out of control?” Kunce asked the owners of Easy Mountain, a cannabis dispensary in the Republic, during a campaign visit in June. And later, “there was a story of big pharma not really caring about their patients.”

He leveraged his voice for frequent appearances on MSNBC and other national networks, as well as magazine profiles in the Washington Post and POLITICO. His campaign is, in many ways, national — but he’s confident it resonates with Show-Me State voters.

“These are the issues that hurt Missourians the most,” he told the News-Leader in an interview after visiting the Republic Clinic. “Gas prices. The fact that their representatives are doing things for coastal elites, rather than them, because that’s where their stock portfolios are.”

This message resonated particularly well with funders outside of Missouri. Of the more than $3.3 million Kunce has raised so far — more than anyone in either party’s field — a majority has come from small-dollar donations outside of it. ‘State. It raised just under $500,000 from Missourians at the end of March, according to documents filed with the Federal Election Commission, and has contributions from 45 states.

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“Real solutions don’t fit on stickers”

Toder brings his experience in the St. Louis-area startup world as he runs for office. It is co-founded a company to help candidates with data and analytics in a campaign that is both digital and personal – sending information to potential voters about registering for safety net programs, connecting local candidates with political advisors and even sending them money directly.

He says his campaign has so far helped about 10,000 Missourians enroll in the state’s recently expanded Medicaid program. He ran ads on Facebook targeting people who earned less than $12,000 a year and therefore did not file taxes, to alert them to the child tax credit program.

“I can’t for the life of me understand the people who have raised over $4 million who aren’t just devoting their time and effort to helping Missourians who need help right now,” Toder said. in an interview, a clear blow against his other two well-funded opponents.

It’s a system that Toder hopes will survive his candidacy, filling the gaps in what he sees as a lack of democratic infrastructure statewide. If he wins the nomination, he has pledged to allocate 10% of his general election funds to building that infrastructure in the state.

United States Senate candidate Spencer Toder addresses a crowd during a pro-choice rally Monday, July 4, 2022. Community members of all ages gathered to protest the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States to overturn Roe v.  Wade Friday, June 24.  Following the protest, the Socialism and Liberation Party staged a march to the federal courthouse.

The campaign is not only made up of texts and data. Toder spent his 4th of July in Springfield, speaking at an abortion rights protest downtown.

“We must abolish the filibuster,” he shouted. “We need to expand the Supreme Court. We need to impeach the traitors who do this to us.”

He later told the News-Leader that he was referring not only to members of Congress, but to Supreme Court justices who “lied under oath” about their positions on Roe v. Wade. A few progressive Democrats in the House, including St. Louis U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, have pushed for similar action against members suspected of involvement in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

“Real solutions don’t fit on bumper stickers,” Toder said. “MAGA is not a real solution, it’s a battle cry of extremists. What solves problems is to look at the fundamental problems, the root causes of problems and create systematic change that escalates all ships with a rising tide.”

“Our politics are so broken and the divisions are so wide”

Valentine, a latecomer to the field, wants above all to lower the temperature of racing and politics in general.

Heir to the Anheuser-Busch beer fortune in St. Louis, she aims to strike a compassionate tone and bring “more integrity, honesty and respect” to Congress. Valentine frequently touts her nursing background — she’s a registered nurse in Missouri — calling it “the most trusted profession in America.” His campaign logo features a small red heart inside an outline of the state.

For some voters frustrated by the recent overthrow of Roe v. Wade, the frequent mass shootings and standoffs on critical Democratic issues in Congress, this could be a tough message to sell. But Valentine says it’s necessary when ‘our politics is so broken and the divisions are so wide’.

“I will always be strong for people’s rights and I will fight for those rights,” she said in an interview. “But let’s make people in politics judge the content of their character more, let’s look for honesty, integrity and respect, and look for ways to work together.”

Trudy Busch Valentine

After her last-minute entry into the race, she quickly garnered support from past and current elected officials, receiving endorsements from Kansas City U.S. Representative Emanuel Cleaver, a range of state legislators from St. KC area and former US House Representative. Richard Gephardt.

His campaign manager, Alex Witt, came to the campaign from a senior position at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington. Witt previously served in a leadership role for U.S. Senator Cory Booker’s 2020 presidential campaign, as digital director for Ralph Northam’s 2017 gubernatorial race in Virginia, and as senior social media strategist for the Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential race.

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Valentine is by far the wealthiest candidate in the field, declaring between $67.5 million and $214.7 million in total assets in a recent federal campaign filing. She pledged to represent all Missourians, regardless of income and social class, if elected.

“I listen, I learn, I see where people are coming from,” she said. “I sympathize and want to make a difference in their lives. And it doesn’t matter that I come from a wealthy family. What I like the most is being with people, ordinary people who work hard and try to improve their lives. And I want to help them, make their lives better.

“I want safer neighborhoods, whatever people are talking about,” she added. I don’t live in a bubble. I know I’m lucky but I still want to see, hear and understand.”

Galen Bacharier covers Missouri politics and government for The News-Leader. Contact him at, (573) 219-7440 or on Twitter @galenbacharier.


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