Melinda Henneberger

For something totally different, independent Craig O’Dear takes a run at the Senate

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Most people who go into politics are at the outset assumed to have no chance of winning. How many beyond our current POTUS himself, and our current governor, Eric Greitens, himself, initially imagined that they’d be delivering a victory speech on Election Night in 2016?

So, too, do few share Missouri’s independent U.S. Senate candidate Craig O’Dear’s conviction that he’s going to beat both the Democratic incumbent, Claire McCaskill, and her Republican challenger, Attorney General Josh Hawley, this coming November.

But then, politics is one field in which realistic expectations are a liability. O’Dear, a politically centrist former Republican, voted for Obama, and in 2016 donated $1,000 to Hillary Clinton (as well as $3,200 to his old friend Greitens) but in the end cast his ballot for Gary Johnson, the libertarian former governor of New Mexico. “I was not comfortable voting for either one of them,’’ he says of Clinton and Donald Trump.

Like independent Kansas gubernatorial candidate Greg Orman, who helped recruit him, he doesn’t want to be described as a potential spoiler. And he doesn’t really even see himself as running against McCaskill or Hawley, about whom he prefers to say as little as possible.

Instead, the 60-year-old Kansas City lawyer, who has taken a leave from Bryan Cave, insists that he’s running against our stymied Senate. He’s running to take on the diminished binary choices served up by our stuck-in-the-mud duopoly. The goal as he sees it is to challenge the current political model, which holds that instead of trying to win over voters from the other party, the way to prevail at the polls is to turn out the base by maximizing anger at and fear about any other alternative.

O’Dear is right about where we are, and correct, too, that this model mandates that all political adversaries be cast as not simply mistaken but evil. One of his obstacles, though, beyond Hawley and McCaskill, who are in what’s expected to be one of the closest races in the country, is that their contest may well decide control of the Senate. Which takes some of the punch out of O’Dear’s line that “having one more R or one more D in Washington isn’t going to matter.”

If this race swings the balance of power, that would matter quite a lot, I argued in a recent interview, but he countered that neither party is going to get the 60 votes needed to pass most legislation. The even bigger picture, he says, is that just one win for an independent who doesn’t caucus with either party would break the whole rotten system open. Which would pave the way for ranked-choice voting and even, oh holy grail, campaign finance reform.

His most appealing point is this one, which he made at a Monday meet-and-greet with a couple dozen mostly 30-something voters at One Light: Though building up a team of moderates would strengthen the parties as well as the country, “the Rs and Ds don’t have a plan to break the gridlock! Their business model is gridlock.”

The host of the event, Saber Hossinei, who works for the Midwest Innocence Project, tells his guests that “I’ve never been involved in politics” before hearing O’Dear’s pitch. “I’ve never even been registered to vote.”

Project manager Jacqueline Ellis, who describes herself as “pretty liberal,” asks O’Dear his position on net neutrality. He’s all for it, he says, having been filled in by his 16-year-old son. Later, Ellis says that though she liked that response, “I think he should focus more on issues if he wants to win.”

Tim Dixon, who works in the music business, sounds like a maybe, too: “I’m all about disruption...” But? He went to grade school with McCaskill’s son, he says, and knows the senator well. O’Dear “sounds awesome, but he’s running against Claire.” Beyond the personal connection, his question is the question: “My generation all voted for change, so we will be receptive to the movement, but will they be receptive to Craig specifically?”