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.
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.’ ”
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
“It’s a wonderful redemption story. I refer to Stephanie as my wife. We’re not remarried (but) I tell our friends we’re as married as any couple you know,” O’Dear said. “We’re committed. ... Our family’s been reunited since Memorial Day of 2016 and it’s been a huge blessing.”