Jason Kander doesn’t feel like a loser.
He doesn’t feel much like a millennial either, whatever that means.
But having lost his bid to represent Missouri in the United States Senate at the age of 35 last year, he is, technically, both of those things. And so, on a recent Wednesday evening, one of the oldest, losing-est millennials in American politics headed to the annual gathering of the High School Democrats of America to speak about, what else, the future of their party.
“We are, believe it or not, in the same generation,” Kander, now 36, told the group of about 100 17-year-olds seated in a George Washington University auditorium. “It’s our generation that will have to fix all this stuff.”
He might seem like an odd person to deliver this message, considering that voters decided against sending him to Washington to be the fixer of things. But Kander still has a lot to offer — and Democrats aren’t in a position to turn away young talent.
The Army veteran and former Missouri secretary of state rose to national prominence thanks to a quirky campaign ad in which he assembled a rifle blindfolded; he went on to outperform Hillary Clinton by 16 percentage points in his state, winning over about 200,000 voters who also pulled the lever for Donald Trump. But in the end, he came up just short against the Republican incumbent, Sen. Roy Blunt.
Kander wasted no time turning a loss into a win. He started a nonprofit aimed at fighting voter suppression, giving him a campaign-like infrastructure to raise money for Democratic candidates and speak at events throughout the country. In the past six months he has been to Iowa and New Hampshire twice and attended events in Colorado, Arizona and Tennessee, to name a few. He has even visited Wisconsin as many times as Clinton did during the presidential campaign (once).
So when Kander speaks in front of groups such as this, they don’t ask what gives him the right to lecture anyone about the path forward. Instead, people say things like this:
“I’m wondering,” a young woman from New York broached during his Q&A segment, “if you will ever run for president.”
Kander seemed unfazed by the question or the applause it generated. “It is always very flattering when people ask that,” he replied. “I’m just really focused on making sure we still hold elections. And then maybe one day I’ll be in one.”
Democrats are desperate for something, for someone, to get excited about — and these days, some of their most thrilling figures are losers. None more so than Jason Kander.
In 1996, the author Michael Lewis spent 10 months following the presidential candidates he knew would never win, for a book he titled “Trail Fever.” He wanted to call it “Losers,” he wrote later, but the publisher said no.
“Never mind that the losers, and their passions, told you a great deal more about American political life in 1996 than the winners with their pollsters,” he wrote in an afterword. It was the losers, he contended, who took real risks, who shaped debates — and from whom the focus-grouped weenies who actually won stole their best ideas.
Today, with their party out of power in the White House and Congress, some Democrats are chanting “Bernie would have won” about Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), who lost. Others are looking to Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D), now best known as the also-rans in the race for Democratic National Committee chair, as leaders of the future.
“I’m biased, but I think that you can accomplish more with a transformative loss than with 100 mundane victories,” said Tom Perriello, the young liberal who maintained such hero status after losing the central Virginia congressional seat he held for one term that he was hailed as a game-changer when he entered the 2017 Democratic gubernatorial primary (which he lost).
“Well,” said P.G. Sittenfeld, a 32-year old councilman from Cincinnati who last year lost the Democratic Senate primary in Ohio, “even a losing campaign can show there’s a hunger for fresh voices.”
Sittenfeld didn’t become a senator, but his voice mail is full of Democrats urging him to run for the House of Representatives. Perriello didn’t get to become governor, but he’s stumping for the Democratic nominee, Ralph Northam, and he takes pride in helping the state party lurch leftward.
“The party is yearning to figure out its next-generation leaders,” said Brian Fallon, who was Hillary Clinton’s campaign spokesman. “There’s a void, and people are hungry to figure out who could potentially fill it.”
And Kander has raised his profile so much since the election that many have been wondering whether he might be better off than had he won.
“I don’t know about that,” said Abe Rakov, Kander’s former campaign manager and longtime political guru. “But from his personal perspective, he is happier than I’ve ever seen him. He’s fighting the battles he wants to every day and doesn’t have to do some of the things he’d have to had he won.”
In 2016, Kander was widely considered the best Democratic recruit running for Senate. He had the look: young and fit, a guy comfortable in a skinny tie or fatigues. He had the life story: Married to his high school sweetheart, he had joined the military after 9/11, served in Afghanistan and came home to enter politics, eventually becoming the first millennial to hold statewide office in the country.
And perhaps most impressive for a politician, he kind of seemed like a normal guy.
“That’s a compliment reserved only for politicians,” Kander said, eating sliders at a Foggy Bottom TGI Fridays recently. “You never hear someone say: ‘You know what I love about my accountant? He’s just a normal guy.’ That’s how low the bar is for people in politics.”
But to a lot of folks in the Democratic Party, there’s nothing normal about his charisma.
“There is a reflectiveness, a coolness, a reasonable approach to talking about politics that he shares with President Obama,” said Tommy Vietor, a former spokesman for the Obama White House. And bear in mind: “Obama did lose his first race for federal office, too,” said Dan Pfeiffer, another veteran of the 44th president’s communications shop.
The night Kander lost, he stood in front of a ballroom of supporters in a neatly pressed suit to offer a concession speech he hadn’t bothered to prepare beforehand. He urged young people not to give up on politics, that it would personally offend him if they did.
“You’ve got to pick yourself up,” he said. “That’s what I’m going to do.”
Shortly thereafter, Trump began proclaiming, without a shred of evidence, that millions had voted illegally to rob him of a popular-vote victory — and Kander found his new mission.
“That’s the biggest lie a sitting president has ever told,” he says now.
Kander saw potential for genuine harm in this groundless boast: Republicans, he feared, could use this bogus claim to usher in efforts to make it more difficult for some people to vote, such as stringent photo-ID requirements. He wanted to be the guy to keep that from happening.
So he created Let America Vote, an organization dedicated to ousting Republicans he considered to be on the wrong side of the issue. So far, the group has raised nearly $2 million and has more than 50,000 people nationwide signed up to volunteer.
It’s a platform that has kept Kander in the public eye, especially now that Trump has moved forward with establishing the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. Tasked with proving the president’s claims of voter fraud, Kris Kobach, commission vice chairman and Kansas secretary of state, recently asked all 50 states and the District of Columbia to provide him with all of their voter data — a request that many have pushed back against.
“He’s like a bizarro me,” Kander said of his neighbor-state political colleague. “One of us is working for good, and the other is Kris Kobach.”
Meanwhile, Kander has a contract to talk politics on CNN and has developed a knack for jousting with far-right-wing bloviators on Twitter. He speaks to Democratic groups about progressive values and what it took to almost win in a red state being a progressive (“Voters are okay with you believing something they don’t believe, as long as they think you genuinely believe it, and you believe it because you care about them.”), and tries to remind a despondent party that maybe there are still some reasons for optimism.
Or, if you will, hope.
Before speaking to the High School Democrats, Kander made a surprise appearance at a rally against the Republicans’ health-care bill, held outside the Capitol. Police tape kept him, and protesters, away from the building where he might have been casting a vote to save Obamacare, had things broken differently for him in November.
Yet in this crowd, it was as if he had won that race and was on his way to something bigger. Mobs of young activists hounded him for photos.
“Can I take a snap with you?” asked Jessica Blum, 23.
“Can I take a snap, too?” asked Meghan Mahoney, also 23.
Kander moved on, to join the hosts of the popular liberal podcast “Pod Save America” as they did a broadcast from the scene, and the young activists walked away, uploading their photos to social media.
“It’s just really refreshing to see someone like Jason out here,” Blum said. “He’s hope at a moment when there isn’t any hope.”
“If he runs for something again, I’m moving there to help him,” Mahoney said. “Wherever it is. I don’t care. I’m there.”
Dave Weigel contributed to this report.