Kansas City could be the epicenter of a national political earthquake in November if voters on either side of the state line decide to elect a political independent in a top race.
Missouri hasn’t sent an independent to the U.S. Senate in its nearly two centuries as a state, but Kansas City attorney Craig O’Dear says he can prevail in what promises to be one of the most competitive Senate races in the country.
The two men have a similar message: They say the two-party system has made it impossible to solve problems at the state and federal level and a third force is needed to push both parties back to the political middle.
It’s not a coincidence.
Both candidates are backed by the same organization, Unite America, which has recruited a slate of independent candidates to run in high-profile races in a half-dozen states.
Unite America, a Denver-based group previously known as the Centrist Project, existed in an early form when Orman mounted his unsuccessful run for U.S. Senate in 2014. He went on to serve on the group’s advisory board before resigning to run for governor, and he helped recruit O’Dear into the race in Missouri.
“I’ve worked to recruit candidates across the country to help break the logjam in Washington and to give people better representation,” Orman said when asked about his role in the overall movement.
O’Dear and other potential candidates met for a conference last summer in Philadelphia with Charles Wheelan, the group’s founder.
“There’s a big chicken and egg problem with independent candidates. People look at them and think they can’t get elected, so they don’t get out of the gate. Meanwhile, good candidates don’t run because they think they can’t get out of the gate,” Wheelan said.
Wheelan’s group is helping equip the candidates with resources that parties often provide, including a donor network and campaign professionals. The various campaigns are coordinating across states, said Joel Searby, the group’s chief strategist.
“We knew that independent candidates needed a lot of the tools that the parties provide,” Searby said.
One area where the group has found interested donors is the technology sector.
Marc Merrill, CEO of Riot Games, was one of the group’s first seven-figure commitments and now serves on its board, Searby said, and other tech entrepreneurs have embraced the movement.
“I think it’s primarily about innovation and creative disruption,” Searby said. “People in that sector understand when a giant monopoly, or in this case duopoly, is not serving its customers well. … That is a market that is ripe for disruption.”
The candidates use nearly identical phrases to describe their campaigns.
“It is an innovative and entrepreneurial undertaking. I view this as a disruptive project,” O’Dear said when he launched his candidacy for what promises be one of the nation’s most expensive races, pitting Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill and the eventual Republican nominee. Attorney General Josh Hawley is the GOP frontrunner.
O’Dear is a partner in an international law firm and Orman’s total assets were estimated in 2014 to range between $21 million and $86 million. Both could potentially put significant resources toward their own campaigns.
Searby bristled at the suggestion that the independent movement appears geared toward the rich, but he acknowledged that the group looked for candidates who could partially self-fund their campaigns.
“Politics is expensive right now,” Searby said. “… Basically, I talked to these candidates and said what we would like is your ability to jump-start (your campaign).”
He also noted that Unite America has recruited candidates for state legislative races who come from more middle-class and blue-collar backgrounds.
By running six candidates in top races in a diverse set of states, Wheelan said, the hope is “the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts” and it will encourage more people to run independently across the country.
“We’re trying to get people to think of politics as any industry,” he said. “It’s stale. It needs to be reinvented.”
But if a slate of candidates runs in multiple states with similar messages and in some cases similar donors, doesn’t that start to resemble a political party, the very thing these candidates want to upend?
Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, noted that “there is some irony in that they’re appealing to people who are sick of parties, but in the end they’re going to have to build a party. And that’s been the most difficult thing for these independent candidate movements.”
Wheelan disagreed. The mechanics of winning an election may be similar, he said, but once an independent enters office the mindset will be entirely different. For one thing, an independent would have no choice but to work with members of both major parties.
“The very nature of our organization is we have to work with anybody who is sitting there,” he said, contrasting the group’s endorsed Senate candidates with the chamber’s current occupants.
The group hopes to expand its field in 2020, but Wheelan said it will remain selective about which races to pursue. For example, he said, there’s no point in running a candidate against Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in New York; a race would be too costly and have a low chance of success.
Wheelan, a Dartmouth College professor, began his career in the 1980s working for Maine Gov. Jock McKernan, whom Wheelan described as a “pro-choice, pro-education Republican … all of which would probably put him on the moderate side of the Democratic Party today.”
Wheelan eventually switched parties and mounted an unsuccessful run for a U.S. House seat in a special election in Chicago in 2009, losing the Democratic primary because he supported education reforms that put him at odds with the teachers union.
He said he realized he was a “person without a party” and began talking to others who felt similarly.
Wheelan said a candidate who supports combating climate change, for example, would lose the GOP primary. But if that same candidate ran as a Democrat, something else, such as wanting to raise the retirement age for Social Security, would cost him the Democratic primary.
By running as an independent, these centrist candidates can bypass primaries, which tend to push candidates to the ideological extremes, he said.
Wheelan said the group ditched the name Centrist Project in favor of Unite America because “we have always struggled with this notion that centrists can’t be passionate.”
But can they win a general election?
Political scientists in Kansas are skeptical of Orman’s chances in a three-way race. He lost to U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts by double digits in 2014 even after the Democratic candidate dropped out of the race to clear a path for Orman’s candidacy.
“At this point, I see Orman as less competitive because there’s going to be a viable Democrat,” Beatty said, noting that state Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, has the backing of former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.
“Americans constantly claim they’re tired of party politics, but they just can’t get themselves to elect independents or third party candidates,” Beatty said. “… When push comes to shove, the siren song of party politics calls them back.”
Orman currently leads every Democratic candidate in fundraising, but Josh Svaty, the top fundraiser in the Democratic field, dismissed the idea that Orman will eclipse the eventual Democratic nominee.
“Greg has a lot of money. And that’s real. You can’t discount that. ... But I struggle to see where Greg’s actual votes come from,” Svaty said.
He called the election a binary choice, noting GOP front runner Kris Kobach’s full-throated embrace of President Donald Trump’s agenda. “Being lukewarm is a hard place to be in 2018,” Svaty said.
“I think it does,” Colyer said when asked whether Orman’s candidacy helps Republicans. “He adds some diversity to the race. He’s good for some and not so good for some others.”
Orman has rejected this argument.
“I think that’s based on bad math,” he said. “The reality is as we’ve looked at this race it’s clear that we can appeal to enough voters to win.
“And you know, look, there’s nowhere in the Kansas Constitution, there’s nowhere in the United States Constitution, that says only two parties are entitled to governor. I don’t think you can spoil a system that’s already rotten.”
Wheelan said independents are the fastest-growing group of voters nationally and independent candidates should no longer be seen as spoilers.
“When you’re the largest voter bloc, you shouldn’t have to justify why you’re in the race,” he said.
This article appeared in The Kansas City Star on February 27, 2018.