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The first Democrat emerges to take on Josh Hawley

Democrat Lucas Kunce is mounting a bid against Sen. Josh Hawley, the Missouri Republican whose attempt to overturn the 2020 election made him a boogeyman on, and a prime target for, the left.

Kunce, a Marine veteran and self-described “populist” who lost in the primary in an unsuccessful run for the Senate last year, announced his plans on Friday morning. In the first interview about his launch, he bashed Hawley as a “coward and a faker.”

And while he framed his candidacy as a part of a larger populist movement, his launch made clear he plans to lean on Hawley’s actions on Jan. 6.

Kunce’s opening campaign video, released on the second anniversary of the insurrection, zeroes in on the Senator’s famous raised fist response to those protesters who had gathered outside the capitol that day, as well as the footage released from the House committee investigating the attack that showed the senator later fleeing the rioters.

Hawley voted to object to the 2020 election results, a decision he defended in an op-ed as having done “in order to have a debate on the issue of election integrity.”

“When he thought it was going to bring him power, he’s there raising his fist,” Kunce told POLITICO. “Then when it got real, he skittered out of there as quick as he could and ran for the exit. And if I ran like that in Iraq or Afghanistan — or anybody else there did — the Marine Corps would have court-martialed us.”

Kunce was a successful fundraiser during his 2022 Senate campaign, bringing in and spending about $5.6 million. But he lost the Democratic primary by almost 5 percentage points to Trudy Busch Valentine, an Anheuser-Busch beer heiress who aired largely self-funded TV ads after jumping into the race late. Busch Valentine went on to lose to Republican Eric Schmitt in the general election by double digits in the red state.

Asked if there was anything he’d do differently this campaign, Kunce argued that the issues he faced were structural in nature. “What I learned is that in our broken political system, where money is the only thing that matters most of the time, if you don’t have it, you’re going to have to work extra, extra hard,” he said. “And you’re probably not going to win the first time. It’s gonna be a very long road.”

Kunce’s advisers said that he has a path to victory in a theoretical general election despite being in a deeply conservative state because he has a unique profile. They also pointed to recent liberal victories in Missouri on ballot initiatives as proof that Democratic values can resonate there.

“Missouri presents the most compelling case for Democrats to flip a GOP-held Senate seat next cycle. At the ballot initiative level, Missourians continue to vote on issues championed by Democrats — raising the minimum wage, fighting back against Right to Work, and passing medical marijuana,” said Elizabeth Sena, a pollster for Kunce. To win, she added, “It will take a different kind of Democrat — someone who can speak to moderates and independents and make the direct contrast with an extremist like Josh Hawley.”

Democrats face a brutal Senate map in 2024 with few, if any, endangered Republicans up for reelection. Hawley is among the few GOPers on the ballot who will likely spark a major progressive donor surge in opposition. But it will be an uphill climb for whichever Democrat emerges to run against him.

A spokesperson for Hawley did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

President Joe Biden lost Missouri by 15 percentage points in 2020. And in a sign of the challenges of campaigning as a Democrat in a GOP-dominated state, Kunce declined to say whether Biden should seek reelection. “I’ve got so little time to think about all the things I want to do in my own campaign, the last thing I can think about is whether someone else should run for something,” he said.

Kunce’s campaign team, the details of which were shared exclusively with POLITICO, includes veterans from Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), Gov.-elect Wes Moore (D-Md.) and Gov. Katie Hobbs’ (D-Ariz.) bids.

The Win Company, which made TV ads for Fetterman, is serving as Kunce’s media consultant. Middle Seat Consulting, which also worked for Fetterman, is handling Kunce’s digital strategy. Connor Lounsbury, a 2022 senior advisor for Moore, is Kunce’s senior advisor managing communications and strategy. Kunce’s pollster, Sena of the Democratic polling firm GQR, was part of Hobbs’ gubernatorial campaign team.

Kunce’s campaign manager is Caleb Cavarretta, his political director is Tyler Tran and his national finance consultants are Dan Sorenson and Jenn Liu.

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