A Kansas City lawyer could shake up one of the most competitive Senate races in the country as he seriously considers running as a centrist independent against U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill and her eventual Republican challenger.
Craig O’Dear, a Kansas City attorney who has the backing of the national Centrist Project and has been quietly contemplating a run for a year, has launched an exploratory campaign committee for a possible independent bid for the Senate. O’Dear said Wednesday that he’ll make his official decision by the end of February.
The Missouri race promises to be one of the most expensive in the country and could determine which party controls the Senate.
McCaskill is viewed as one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents, and several national groups, including the Club for Growth, plan to spend significant money on behalf of Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, the GOP frontrunner.
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O’Dear, a 60-year-old Missouri native, is a partner with Bryan Cave LLP, an international law firm that has an office in Kansas City. For the last six years, he has served on the advisory board for the Midwest Innocence Project, a nonprofit that works to exonerate people who have been wrongfully convicted.
The two independents currently serving in the Senate, U.S. Sens. Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders Vermont, caucus with the Democrats, but O’Dear said if elected to the Senate he would refuse to caucus with either party. This would likely mean that he would receive no committee assignments.
“We need innovation in politics. This caucus system that the United States Senate has used for decades... it has brought a gridlock to the United States Senate, which used to be known as the world’s greatest deliberative body,” O’Dear said.
“There are people that have suggested, ‘You’re not going to have power. You won’t have any way to have any impact if you take that position.’ Well, you know what the last twelve months have taught us? The only people who really have power in the United States Senate are those senators who have said, ‘I am not handing my vote to the leaders of my party and letting them deal it at their discretion.’ ”
No member of the Senate in recent history has refused to caucus with either party, said Daniel Holt, assistant historian in the U.S. Senate’s Historical office.
“The main handicap would be the inability to be included in the committee nomination process that determines committee assignments at the start of each Congress,” Holt said.
In 1953, Sen. Wayne Morse of Oregon broke with the Republicans and brought a folding chair to the chamber to place symbolically in the center aisle. But his independence cost him seniority on committees and ultimately he decided to caucus with Democrats.
O’Dear’s rhetoric bears striking similarity to that of Greg Orman, who mounted an unsuccessful campaign for U.S. Senate in Kansas in 2014 and is weighing a bid for governor this year. O’Dear contributed $1,500 to Orman’s candidacy in 2014, according to the Federal Election Commission.
O’Dear confirmed that he knows Orman personally and that the Kansas businessman first approached him about running in 2014.
“After that race, Greg asked me lunch and said, ‘I can tell you’re interested in this. You should consider doing it because this movement, this is not the end. This is the beginning,’” O’Dear said, noting that Orman connected him with the Centrist Project last year.
McCaskill took credit in 2014 for convincing Democrat Chad Taylor to drop out of the Kansas race in an effort to boost Orman, who national Democrats believed at the time stood a better chance of ousting Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts.
O’Dear could play a significant role in the Missouri election because early polls show McCaskill and Hawley locked in a tight race.
A January poll from Missouri Scout of 1,122 likely voters found that 49 percent support Hawley compared to 45 percent for McCaskill, with 6 percent undecided. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.
“In a close race, everything matters,” said Nate Gonzales, the editor and publisher of Inside Elections, a Washington-based publication that analyzes U.S. House and Senate races.
“I think the burden of proof is on any third-party or independent candidate to demonstrate an ability to move beyond a typical protest vote,” Gonzales said. “There are third party and independents in most races, so on its face it’s nothing new, but it has the potential to be a complicating factor in an already competitive race.”
O’Dear pointed to the contentious debate over health care as an illustration of how the country’s political system is broken because of partisanship.
“We start out with one party who passes legislation... on a party line vote, so then we have the opposition party that spends years saying, ‘It’s a terrible piece of legislation and when we regain power we’re going to replace it with something so much better and less expensive,’ ” O’Dear said.
“So then the Republicans get in power and they say, ‘Well, now we’re going to repeal and replace.’ But lo and behold, what do we see? They don’t have a repeal. They don’t have a replace. To me, that was a great opportunity for the Democrats... You see this other party that, you know, you say doesn’t have the answers. They’re coming up with nothing. Where’s your answer? Where’s your proposal? What’s your message to the American people of how we’re going to fix it? Nothing.”
David Brain, a friend of O’Dear’s and the treasurer of his exploratory committee, said O’Dear was driven to run for U.S. Senate as opposed to another public office because control of the chamber is determined by just one vote. In such a polarized environment, a centrist independent could wield considerable power and help break down gridlock, Brain said.
“To get something done, you have to create swing votes in the middle that force people to bring their agenda to the middle to capture those swing votes,” he said. “Things are close enough in the Senate — (control is determined by) just one two or three people — so you begin to create a centrist swing vote and that’s the way you’d get things done.”
O’Dear has a history of donating to candidates of both parties, including $1,000 to Democrat Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016. During the same election cycle, he contributed $1,000 to U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, and $500 to U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican.
He also donated $3,200 to Republican Eric Greitens’ successful campaign for Missouri governor in 2016 and gave $500 to Chris Koster, Greitens’ Democratic opponent, according to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
O’Dear said he struggled with whom to support in 2016 because he has known Koster for years, but he also struck up a friendship with Greitens early in the campaign and hosted a fundraiser for him.
O’Dear also knows McCaskill and has met Hawley.
“I’ve known Claire for many years, beginning when she was a prosecutor here in Jackson County. I have family who went to college with her. ... I’ve known her for a long time. Josh is obviously younger, newer. I’ve met Josh. Don’t know him really well,” O’Dear said.
“Here’s one of the things I want to be really clear about: I believe Claire McCaskill and Josh Hawley are both good people of good will, just like I believe of Eric Greitens. I’m not, as I said, running against either one of them. I’m running for something that I think is desperately missing in our national politics and in our national government.”
McCaskill’s spokeswoman, Meira Bernstein, said in an email that it’s “not surprising that another lifelong Republican is abandoning their party because of Donald Trump. This is a fight over the soul of the Republican Party.”
Hawley’s campaign spokeswoman, Kelli Ford, dismissed O’Dear as “another Hillary-loving liberal.”
“We look forward to watching the trial lawyer and Senator McCaskill compete to be the liberal standard-bearer,” Ford said in an email.
Bob Salera, the spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in an email that it’s “bad news for Claire McCaskill if she has to compete against another Hillary backer for the 38 percent of Missouri voters who supported Secretary Clinton over President Trump.”
David Bergstein, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in an email: “The GOP now has to worry about voters splitting their support between whoever emerges from the primary and this former lifelong Republican in November.”
O’Dear is prepared for his personal life to face scrutiny if he runs. He had a conflict in 2016 with a blog, Legal Schnauzer, that reported his name was in the hacked data from the website Ashley Madison, which is known to cater to people seeking extramarital affairs.
O’Dear said the blogger wrongly suggested that his use of the website contributed to his divorce in 2012.
He said that he only began using the website and other dating sites more than a year after his divorce. The couple, who have three kids ages 16 to 22, have since reconciled and are living together in Kansas City.
“This a wonderful thing about this whole story. It’s a wonderful redemption story. I refer to Stephanie as my wife. We’re not remarried. I think of her as my wife. She thinks of me as my husband because as I tell our friends we’re as married as any couple you know,” O’Dear said. “We’re committed. She moved back into our home. ... Our family’s been reunited since Memorial Day of 2016 and it’s been a huge blessing.”