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Kunce seeks Democratic nomination to run against Hawley in Missouri’s 2024 Senate contest

Lucas Kunce, democratic candidate for Missouri’s open U.S. Senate seat
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Lucas Kunce on Friday announced his 2024 bid for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate.

Democrat Lucas Kunce announced Friday he will run for the U.S. Senate next year, seeking to deny GOP Sen. Josh Hawley a second term.

Kunce’s decision kicks off Missouri’s 2024 election cycle, which could have a higher level of money and competitiveness thanks to a presidential race and some of Hawley’s more high-profile decisions.

“You've seen here in Missouri our politicians betray us over and over again. Josh Hawley is a great example,” Kunce said in an interview. “He doesn't care about Missouri. He doesn't care about the country.”

Kunce is a lawyer who served in the Marines and lives in Independence. Originally from Jefferson City, Kunce ran a well-funded Democratic primary campaign for Senate in 2022 but lost to Trudy Busch Valentine.

After his loss, Kunce remained active on social media and campaigned for Democratic candidates during the general election. In a statement, Kunce said he chose to announce on Jan. 6 to highlight Hawley’s high-profile objections to President Joe Biden’s 2020 election wins in Arizona and Pennsylvania.

In 2018, Josh Hawley defeated incumbent U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill.
In 2018, Josh Hawley defeated U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill. He'll likely have several Democratic candidates run against him in 2024.

Kunce’s campaign released a web ad that highlights Hawley pumping his fist to the crowd outside the Capitol before the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, as well as footage of him running through the Capitol as a mob attacked.

“The second he thinks it’s going to give him power, he’s out there raising his fist all ‘rah, rah, rah,’” Kunce said. “And as soon as things get real, he’s skittering out the back door and running for the exit.”

Hawley has defended his decision to object to Biden’s victories in Pennsylvania and Arizona, contending he was showcasing what he felt were irregularities during the election.

In a statement, Hawley spokesman Kyle Plotkin didn’t express much concern about Kunce’s decision to run for the Senate again.

“We welcome this desperate woke activist to yet another political race,” Plotkin said. “He just barely finished losing his last one. Maybe he’s running in the wrong state.”

Hawley’s decision to be the first senator to announce an objection before the Jan. 6 insurrection made him a lightning rod among Democratic voters. It could be why Missouri Democrats may be able to fundraise prodigiously without relying on powerful third-party committees.

Whether the influx of money and attention changes the calculus for Democrats is another story.

Busch Valentine lost badly to now-U.S. Sen. Eric Schmitt, as she got crushed in rural counties and failed to make up meaningful ground in conservative suburbs. To beat Hawley, Kunce or any other Democratic candidate will need to piece together a rural, suburban and urban coalition, as Democrats like Jay Nixon and Claire McCaskill did.

Kunce, though, is confident he’ll be able to break Democratic futility in statewide contests.

“I think if everyday Americans and everyday Missourians are gonna control the government, we need to have candidates like me,” Kunce said.

Amaya Stief, 22, of Bethalto, demonstrates on Monday, July 4, 2022, during an abortion rights demonstration in downtown St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Amaya Stief, 22, of Bethalto, demonstrates on July 4, 2022, during an abortion rights demonstration in downtown St. Louis.

There could be another issue besides Hawley’s 2020 election objections that influence the 2024 election cycle: abortion rights.

Missouri House Minority Leader Crystal Quade said on Wednesday that Democratic leaders were working on a ballot initiative that would repeal the state’s abortion ban. If that measure gets enough signatures and is on the ballot during the 2024 election, it could alter turnout in what would otherwise likely be an uncompetitive presidential state.

Kunce campaigned in 2022 on passing a federal law legalizing abortion under the parameters of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Hawley is an opponent of abortion rights who supported the Supreme Court striking down Roe last year, a move that effectively prohibited abortion in Missouri and a number of other states.

“Josh Hawley, he wants to control us in the bedroom. He wants to control us in the doctor's office,” Kunce said. “All of these issues of controlling everyday Missourians, so that he can have power, are going to be issues. And we're gonna be highlighting them from today — all the way to the last day of the campaign.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.