Missouri Democrat Debuts Southern Accent After Launching Senate Bid
There’s an advisor-led candidate playbook: Toss those khakis against jeans, roll up your sleeves, and start talking like your constituents. Missouri Democrat Lucas Kunce, who recently announced a bid for the Senate, may have taken this last piece of advice a little too far.
Since the start of his campaign on January 6th Kunce speaks with a soft Southern accent. the The accent was on full display in his campaign launch video, with a scene in which a pensive Kunce sits on a porch and tears up Senator Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) for his “banker daddy.”
That campaign ad was followed by appearances on MSNBC, where Kunce sat in front of his collection of old Magic: The Gathering trading cards and said, “Missourians have no tolerance for cowards and cheaters.” Listeners familiar with Kunce, who was unsuccessful for the U.S. Senate candidates will find that he sounds markedly different from when he was on the left-wing American Economic Liberties Project just two years ago.
Politicians adopting Southern accents to make themselves understood are far from a new phenomenon. Failed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton regularly varied her dialect to appeal to different audiences, earning her ridicule even from liberal late-night host Jon Stewart. Former President Barack Obama has a habit of sounding more like a Southern Baptist minister than a Hawaiian native when speaking in the South, and only did so last fall on the campaign trail for Sen. Raphael Warnock (D.) in Georgia wiped out. As the Washington Free Beacon Democratic House nominee Roger Dean Huffstetler, treated in 2018, transformed from tech bro to good old boy just months after moving to a rural county in Virginia.
Charles Boberg, Professor of Linguistics at McGill University, the co-author of Atlas of North American English, widely regarded as the pivotal text on accents and dialects in the United States, said he was able to spot “variations” in the way Kunce spoke before and after his campaign launched. Boberg speculated that Kunce might cycle through a “repertoire” of accents he uses to appeal to different audiences.
“I’m spotting some variations between more and less Southern-sounding pronunciation,” Boberg said after reviewing audio clips of Kunce. “It’s possible that the speaker may sound more generally Southern to certain audiences or in certain contexts than others. That’s pretty normal for people whose ‘repertoire’ of accents and speaking styles includes both their version of ‘standard’ English and a local or ethnic accent that’s spoken in the community they grew up in.”
Boberg said it’s common for individuals to change their accent “in response to the needs of a particular situation.”
“Many middle-class African Americans, for example, speak both ‘standard’ and African-American-sounding English and can shift and switch between those accents as needed,” Boberg said. “We would call that ‘sociolinguistic competence’.”
However, it is unlikely that Kunce’s southern accent was inherited from the community in which he was raised. The Democratic hopeful was born just outside of Columbia, Missouri, and raised near the state’s capital, Jefferson City. Experts say this central region of the state has more in common linguistically with parts of Iowa, Nebraska and Ohio, where they speak what linguists refer to as “North Midland” and “South Midland” English.
It’s not that Missourians lack a distinct dialect or accent. Sociolinguists have spent countless hours studying the way people in the show-me state speak. As noted by the Linguistics Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, Missouri is unique in that it is home to three distinct urban dialect areas, making it difficult for a politician trying to fit into an electoral base.
“Missouri itself is a transition area between the Midwestern language of Iowa and the Southern language of Arkansas or Texas, with the language generally becoming more southern as one goes south or less urban. Parts of southern Missouri definitely sound southern, while Kansas City and St. Louis don’t,” Boberg said.
A spokesman for Kunce’s campaign declined to comment on the candidate’s accent, instead suggesting that his Republican opponent was “obsessed” with Kunce’s voice. It’s unclear what the campaign was referring to – the Free beacon could not identify any comments from Hawley or his campaign about Kunce’s accent. Hawley’s campaign was not contacted for the story.
Today, many Missourians speak more like Hawley, who has no obvious regional accent. Hawley, who was born in Missouri’s southern neighbor Arkansas, would rather flaunt the sluggish Kunce showcases in his campaign launch video.
As noted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Linguistics Laboratory, Missouri is in the region where accents are beginning to shift toward the language commonly associated with the American South. SSome Missouri politicians, like former Republican Congressman Billy Long, speak with an easily recognizable and authentic Southern accent. Long represented the southwesternmost part of the state, which is also the more conservative part of the state.
To unseat Hawley, Kunce must win voters in the more conservative areas of Missouri, where southern accents are more common. The last Democratic candidate to be elected to the US state Senate, Claire McCaskill campaigned tirelessly in rural areas during her last campaign, but was defeated by Hawley.