Missouri Democrat Jason Kander rarely misses an opportunity to assail incumbent U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt for getting far too cozy with wealthy donors and lobbyists.
Kander is counting on the characterization of Blunt as the quintessential Washington insider to help him oust the longtime Republican lawmaker from his Senate seat in 2016.
Now Republicans are trying to flip that script on Kander with an online and social media campaign that portrays the 34-year-old Missouri Secretary of State as a “pandering panda” who hobnobs with wealthy Democrats and special interests in Washington.
It’s the first fully digital campaign launched by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and comes amid recent polling data that showed Kander pulling within five percentage points of Blunt, who has been favored to win. The survey by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic pollster, also showed that many voters — 25 percent — are undecided, and put Blunt’s approval rating at just 30 percent.
With control of the Senate at stake in 2016, the early attack on Kander shows that Republicans aren’t taking any chances, political observers say.
“It is too early to put much confidence in such a poll as a predictor of the election outcome, but it is the kind of development that is noticed by national parties, donors, and activists,” said Steven Smith, director of the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy at Washington University in St. Louis.
The poll “gives hope to Kander,” Smith said. “I can imagine that the (National Republican Senatorial Committee) does not want Kander to develop momentum at this stage, but does want to drive up Kander’s negatives as he gains more recognition.”
The panda-themed anti-Kander campaign started with a series of 10-second videos on the texting app Snapchat. The ads, which aired during the first Republican debate, targeted people in Missouri through geo-location technology.
The Snapchat ads were followed by a website titled “Kander Pander,” that launched Wednesday, along with a longer video and a series of social media posts on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
“Jason Kander wants people to think he’s for Missouri, but they don’t see him in his natural habitat, pandering to big money Democrats and lobbyists,” a male voice intones on the video.
“He arrives Jason Kander and leaves …”
Cue a thunderbolt and a chorus of terrified children’s voices: “THE PANDERING PANDA!”
Next come images of someone in a panda suit dancing around Washington, DC, with a sign that reads “I love Obama” and a giant money sack.
“For the right price, he’ll say or do anything – except stand up for Missouri ,” child-like voices chirp as bouncy music plays.
“He’s trying to climb the political ladder! And attending fancy dinners all over the country! And fund raising with (Senate Minority Leader) Harry Reid!”
The video wraps with an invite to voters to follow the Pandering Panda’s adventures online “and find out who he’s really working for.”
The dancing panda might seem silly, but it’s evidence that Republicans in Washington are taking the Kander-Blunt race seriously, said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report, a non-partisan newsletter covering U.S. political campaigns.
But Gonzales said there’s an important distinction to be made: “Just because Republicans in Washington are taking the race seriously doesn’t mean they think Blunt is on the verge of defeat,” he said.
Blunt is much less vulnerable than other Republican Senators such as Mark Kirk of Illinois, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin or Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Gonzales said.
Still, the GOP isn’t taking Blunt’s reelection for granted.
The national party strategists behind the “Kander Pander” campaign hope the off-beat videos and graphics work on multiple levels to define Kander and boost Blunt’s prospects, Gonzales said.
The point of the “Kander Pander” social media blitz is to let voters know that Kander “is not the person he says he is,” said Greg Blair, a spokesman for the NRSC.
“Jason Kander has his own record of being very cozy with Washington lobbyists and being very cozy with Harry Reid, and that’s his problem,” Blair said.
The focus on Washington could backfire on Blunt, however.
“I don’t think they have an interest in fueling a discussion about Washington because Blunt’s been in Washington and Kander hasn’t,” Gonzales said.
Kander’s spokesman Abe Rakov said the panda ads are a sign of desperation from Blunt and his allies, “who are clearly panicking about his chances for re-election.”
Kander lived in Washington as an undergraduate at American University and as a law student at Georgetown University, Rakov said.
It’s Blunt, not Kander, who has spent his career prioritizing special interests in Washington over constituents in Missouri, he said.
“It’s not surprising that Sen. Blunt is so worried about his longstanding ties to Washington since he’s moved himself and his family there, has been caught multiple times doing special favors for lobbyists, and even created a lobbyist ‘war room’ in his official office to help special interests have an even bigger role in the legislative process,” Rakov said.