JEFFERSON CITY • He stared into the camera with squinted eyes and a puffed-out chest. He did not smile. He wore a collared shirt with no tie, his thick brown hair tossed to the side.
His head shot was attached to a press release, which popped into reporters’ inboxes last Tuesday.
The man’s name: Courtland Sykes. His mission: U.S. Senate, 2018.
Modeling his campaign after Make-America-Great-Again-style populism, the Republican Sykes last week made a surprise leap into the race to unseat U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. The Navy veteran and Harvard graduate is marketing himself as a “political outsider” in support of President Donald Trump’s “America first” agenda.
His announcement came as ex-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon was scouting out candidates around the country he believes can carry the “anti-establishment” banner in 2018. Sykes said he “exchanged pleasantries” with Bannon when Bannon visited St. Louis last month. (On Thursday, the Kansas City Star reported that Attorney General Josh Hawley, another potential GOP Senate candidate, had spoken with Bannon about the race.)
So far, it is hard to determine whether Sykes’ campaign has traction. He has relied on social media, interviews with journalists and a two-minute campaign video to spread his message. Several Missouri Republican leaders say they know nothing about the Arkansas native.
He has been a permanent resident of Missouri for less than a year. In an interview, he refused to talk about his business, a defense consulting firm. To illustrate his Missouri ties, he said his family vacationed in the Ozarks growing up — but he wouldn’t say where.
“Look, I’m not going to talk about family stuff,” he told the Post-Dispatch.
In a 20-minute interview on Monday, Sykes, 37, struggled to answer questions about when the United States should exercise military force. Sykes declined a second interview. But he did send over an 11-page document in a question-and-answer format.
In the document, Sykes criticizes political correctness. He takes aim at modern feminism, praises Breitbart News, derides “Big Media,” belittles the Muslim faith and, in a jab at the nation’s education system, says Detroit “is crawling with uneducated people who can’t read a breakfast menu.”
In his final answer, Sykes responded to the question: “Do you favor women’s rights?”
“Chanel (Rion), my fiancee, has given me orders to favor these rights, so I’d better,” he said. “But Chanel knows that my obedience comes with a small price that she loves to pay anyway — I want to come home to a home-cooked dinner at six every night, one that she fixes.
“It’s exactly the kind of family dinner that I expect one day my future daughters will learn to make after they too become traditional homemakers and family wives — think Norman Rockwell here — and Gloria Steinham (sic) be damned.”
In his document, Sykes also says it’s time for social programs implemented in the 20th century to “go away.” He wants to “stop Muslim immigration cold for now.” He wants to eliminate most U.S. laws. And he says those who work in advertising, lawmaking, law enforcement, lobbying and other fields are part of an industry that “employs millions who drink swamp juice every day.”
The Post-Dispatch forwarded the statements to John Messmer, a political science professor at St. Louis Community College at Meramec.
He said the document reads like “Trump-inspired populism on steroids.”
“I’m 99.9 percent sure it’s not parody,” Messmer said. “It’s not something strategic done by the Democratic side or someone that’s looking to criticize the conservative or Republican position.
“I do hold back that .1 percent,” Messmer said. “This might be one of the greatest examples of political performance art I’ve ever seen.”
Much more likely, Messmer said, is that Sykes is trying to tap into a potent brand of politics, the kind that helped Trump carry Missouri by 19 percentage points last year.
‘Eye to eye’
Five Republican party insiders had the same answer when asked about Sykes.
“I don’t know anything about him,” said Jeff Roe, a political consultant with Kansas City-based Axiom Strategies.
Four others gave the same answer: John Hancock, former chairman of the Missouri GOP; Pat Thomas, the current state party treasurer; Ed Martin, who heads an offshoot of Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum; and Austin Chambers, a senior adviser to Gov. Eric Greitens.
Thomas said she first heard about Sykes when she saw an online video last week that he had posted.
It paints a bleak portrait of America, mentioning “sky-high” taxes, a $20 trillion national debt, drawn-out wars and a poor education system.
Riot police appear and fire flashes on screen as the narrator says “crime is rampant.” The narrator says “immigration is out of control” as footage of someone throwing what appears to be a Molotov cocktail plays. A video of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un saluting follows. And then, a mushroom cloud.
“Nuclear terror,” the narrator says. “It’s here.”
Cut to Sykes.
“My name is Courtland Sykes,” he says, “United States Senate candidate for Missouri. And if you like President Trump, then you and I see eye to eye.”
He says the “swamp” is blocking Trump’s agenda. The screen switches from McCaskill to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., with the word “SWAMP” appearing on screen.
“Let Missouri lead,” he says. “Not Hollywood. Not Wall Street. Not Washington.
“Missouri is the real America.”
Sykes, however, is from Hot Springs, Ark. In a statement, Sykes’ campaign said he “began last year living in Missouri regularly and is now a permanent resident.” He says he now lives in Independence with his fiancée and his dog.
Sykes filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission on Sept. 26. He has yet to list any donors and declined to say who was funding his campaign.
Sykes lists himself as the managing director of the Talosorion group, whose mission is “bridging military and diplomatic strategies.” He also served as military and veterans affairs representative for U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., from March 2016 to January 2017, according to Westerman’s office.
Sykes would not talk about Talosorion.
“This candidate’s going to need a little bit of privacy when it comes to DOD (Department of Defense) consulting,” Sykes said.
On his LinkedIn page, Sykes says he spent almost a decade in the Navy and working for the Defense Intelligence Agency. He said he served four tours of duty in the Middle East and one intelligence-gathering role in the United States’ Panamanian Embassy.
In 1999, after a boat wreck on Lake Hamilton in Hot Springs, an 18-year-old Sykes helped pull bodies out of the water while he was working at a nearby boat rental shop.
“It was a tough day, obviously,” Sykes said. He added, “That’s going to be coming out more in my book in December.”
He graduated with a social sciences degree from the Harvard Extension School in 2014, a Harvard University spokesman confirmed.
His fiancée, Chanel Rion, has a section on SykesForSenate2018.com. The website says she has been recognized as “the best political illustrator in the country for constitutional conservative and anti-leftist causes.” Sykes said Rion “did most of her growing up” in Missouri.
Challenging conservatives, liberals
Asked what the “America first” vision meant in regard to trade, and to various international quagmires such as Afghanistan, Iraq and North Korea, Sykes demurred.
He said the question was broad and continued: “We cannot elect and send congressmen and senators to Washington that do not put America first. ... We’re not sending these people to Washington to represent any other country.”
Hancock, former chairman of the Missouri GOP, said to win a statewide campaign a candidate must have a constituency, the resources to communicate and a winning message.
“It remains to be seen whether any or all of those attributes exist with Mr. Sykes,” he said.
Messmer said Sykes’ views are “extreme libertarianism, in a way, colliding with extreme populism in a way that blows itself up into something completely different.” It “challenges conservatives just as much as it challenges liberals.”
Among other groups, Sykes attacks the political class in his campaign document.
“I resent the elitist Senate idea — invented by the big boys in the swamp — that only very special, effete people can be Senators. They want to steal the Senate from the people. The truth?
“Anybody can serve.”