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Dave Helling: Road to Washington is rockier for an independent candidate

The nonprofit Centrist Project is looking for someone to mount an independent bid in Missouri against U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican, and Democratic challenger Jason Kander. A recent poll shows many Missourians are disappointed with the two major parties, but a third-way candidate would face serious hurdles in getting to Capitol Hill.
The nonprofit Centrist Project is looking for someone to mount an independent bid in Missouri against U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican, and Democratic challenger Jason Kander. A recent poll shows many Missourians are disappointed with the two major parties, but a third-way candidate would face serious hurdles in getting to Capitol Hill. Bloomberg

Could Missouri see a three-way race for the U.S. Senate next year?

Maybe. There is growing background chatter that a well-financed independent may decide to challenge incumbent Roy Blunt, a Republican, and Jason Kander, a Democrat who is currently Missouri’s secretary of state, in 2016.

The discussion has been linked with the Centrist Project, a nonprofit social welfare company that “primarily focuses on creating a political, educational and advocacy home for moderate Americans,” according to its website. The group’s goal is to elect five “centrist” senators by 2020.

Jim Jonas, who ran Greg Orman’s unsuccessful independent campaign for the U.S. Senate in Kansas last year, is working with the group. He says there’s an early effort to recruit an independent to run in Missouri in 2016.

Jonas is encouraged by recent polling, which suggests a path for a centrist candidate who is unaffiliated with either major party. Nearly 41 percent of Missourians surveyed say they consider themselves unaffiliated or undecided, while Republicans and Democrats are split at 30 percent each. Older voters are particularly receptive to a third-way candidate, the poll shows.

Additionally, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s apparent popularity in Missouri — he led the state in a different poll — shows voters are willing to listen to candidates with little or no political experience.

Disgust with the two major parties is extraordinarily high, Jonas believes.

Ballot access in Missouri is relatively easy. It would take 10,000 petition signatures from registered voters to put an independent on the November ballot, an average of 1,250 signatures per congressional district. The signatures could come from anywhere in the state.

Of course, getting on the ballot is only the first step, as Orman showed. The harder work would involve running an independent campaign in a state like Missouri, which has two large media markets and daunting geography. An independent candidate could not rely on the door-to-door labor of party members or any of the organizing efforts of party officials in smaller counties.

He or she would need money, charisma, energy and a little luck to seriously challenge Blunt and Kander next year.

An independent also would have to answer the question that Orman would not answer: With which party would you caucus if you’re elected? Americans say they hate the two major parties, but our system is built on them. Pat Roberts, the incumbent senator Orman challenged in 2014, linked Orman with Democratic Sen. Harry Reid to devastating effect.

So the bar for an independent candidate in Missouri is high. That makes it hard to recruit a candidate, Jonas concedes, but he believes a successful independent campaign would send a sharp message to Washington. The right candidate in the right environment could make the Missouri race more interesting than it already is.

This summer we may see whether he’s right.

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