There’s a consultant-driven playbook for candidates: Ditch the khakis for jeans, roll up your sleeves, and start talking like your constituents. Missouri Democrat Lucas Kunce, who recently announced a Senate bid, may have taken that last piece of advice a little too far.
Since launching his campaign on Jan. 6, Kunce speaks with a soft Southern drawl. The accent was on full display in his campaign launch video, with one scene featuring a meditative Kunce sitting on a porch ripping Sen. Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) for his "banker daddy."
That campaign ad was followed up by appearances on MSNBC where Kunce, sitting in front of his collection of vintage Magic: The Gathering trading cards, he said "Missourians don't tolerate cowards and frauds." Listeners familiar with Kunce, who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate last cycle, will observe that he sounds notably different from his time as a staffer for the left-wing American Economic Liberties Project just two years ago.
Politicians adopting Southern accents as a way to appear relatable is far from a new phenomenon. Failed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton regularly varied her dialect to appeal to different audiences, earning her scorn from even liberal late night host Jon Stewart. Former president Barack Obama has a habit of sounding more like a Southern Baptist preacher than a Hawaii native when speaking in the South, and busted it out as recently as last fall on the campaign trail for Sen. Raphael Warnock (D.) in Georgia. As the Washington Free Beacon covered in 2018, Democratic House candidate Roger Dean Huffstetler transformed from a tech bro to a good ol’ boy just a few months after relocating to a rural Virginia district.
McGill University linguistics professor Charles Boberg, who co-authored the Atlas of North American English, widely considered the pivotal text on accents and dialects in the United States, said he was able to "detect variation" in how Kunce spoke before and after his campaign launch. Boberg speculated that Kunce could be cycling through a "repertoire" of accents that he uses to appeal to different audiences.
"I do detect some variation between more- and less-Southern-sounding pronunciation," Boberg said after reviewing audio clips of Kunce. "It's possible that the speaker sounds more Southern in general with certain audiences or in certain contexts than others. That's fairly normal for people whose 'repertoire' of accents and speech styles includes both their version of 'standard' English and a local or ethnic accent that is spoken in the community they grew up in."
Boberg said it is common for individuals to change their accents "in response to the needs of a particular situation."
"Lots of middle-class African Americans, for instance, speak both 'standard'-sounding and African-American-sounding English and can switch and shift between these accents in response to the needs of a particular situation," Boberg said. "That's what we would call 'sociolinguistic competence.'"
It is unlikely, however, that Kunce's Southern drawl was adopted from the community he grew up in. The Democratic hopeful was born just outside of Columbia, Missouri, and raised nearby in the state's capital, Jefferson City. That central region of the state, experts say, shares more in common linguistically with parts of Iowa, Nebraska, and Ohio, where they speak what is referred to by linguists as "North Midland" and "South Midland" English.
It’s not as though Missourians lack a distinct dialect or accent. Sociolinguists have devoted countless hours studying the way people speak in the Show-Me state. As the Linguistics Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania concluded, Missouri is unique in that it is home to three distinct urban dialect areas, making it hard territory for a politician trying to blend in with a voter base.
"Missouri itself is a transitional area, between the Midwestern speech of Iowa and the Southern speech of Arkansas or Texas, with speech generally getting more Southern as you get either further south or less urban. Parts of southern Missouri definitely sound Southern, whereas Kansas City and St. Louis does not," Boberg said.
A spokesman for Kunce's campaign declined to address the candidate's accent and instead suggested that his Republican opponent has an "obsession" with Kunce's voice. It is unclear what the campaign was referring to—the Free Beacon was unable to identify any comments made by Hawley or his campaign about Kunce's accent. Hawley's campaign was not contacted for the story.
Nowadays, many Missourians speak more like Hawley, who has no evident regional accent. Hawley, who was born in Missouri's southern neighbor Arkansas, would be more likely to sport the drawl Kunce showcases in his campaign launch video.
As the University of Pennsylvania’s Linguistics Laboratory notes, Missouri sits in the region where the accents start to shift toward the tongue commonly associated with the American South. Some Missouri politicians, such as former Republican congressman Billy Long, speak with an easily recognizable and authentic Southern accent. Long represented the southwest-most portion of the state, which is also the more conservative portion of the state.
To unseat Hawley, Kunce will have to attract voters in Missouri's more conservative areas where Southern accents are more common. The last Democratic candidate elected to the U.S. Senate in the state, Claire McCaskill, campaigned relentlessly in rural areas during her last campaign but fell short against Hawley.