Can Missouri elect a centrist senator?

By Aristophanes

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, might be the luckiest politician alive.

In 2012, it was Todd Akin. As Missouri accelerated its post-millenial trend toward the Republican Party, McCaskill’s supporters knew she faced an uphill battle in a year when the presidential election would surely bring a large portion of the state’s Republican base to the polls.

But, amazingly, the senator’s eventual Republican opponent, controversial arch-conservative Akin, committed an irredeemable gaffe less than three months before the election. In an interview with a St. Louis television station, Akin said the female body has ways of shutting down unwanted pregnancies in cases of what he called “legitimate rape.”

The comment proved both medically erroneous and highly controversial, setting off a firestorm in the Show-Me State. Akin’s political support evaporated, but he himself did not. Refusing to step aside and surrender his place on the November ballot, Akin thereby ensured McCaskill’s landslide victory in a state Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney carried by nearly 10 points.

Now, six years later, another political scandal could save McCaskill’s career. Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, whom the American Unionist has written about before, has been charged with two separate felonies.

The first stems from a St. Louis prosecutor’s investigation of an alleged blackmail scandal involving Greitens and a woman with whom he had an extramarital affair before running for office. The woman, secretly recorded by her estranged husband, claims Greitens took a partially-nude photo of her without consent while she was bound and blindfolded in the basement of the future governor’s St. Louis residence. Greitens threatened to release the photo if she ever revealed the affair, she says.

Since this revelation, first reported by St. Louis television station KMOV 4 in January, the Missouri House of Representatives has launched a bipartisan special investigative committee into the matter. On April 12, the committee released its first report, in which the woman credibly testifies, in lurid detail, that Greitens groped and hit her. That launched a round of calls for the governor’s resignation and possible impeachment by numerous members of the state’s General Assembly. The committee has voted to continue its investigation into the summer, and a petition is circulating among Assembly members to call the legislature into a special session to consider possible impeachment charges. Should the special session occur, it would be a historic first.

For his part, Greitens is refusing to step down, calling the case against him a “witch hunt” with an inherently political motive, never mind the committee investigating him is composed of a supermajority of members of his own Republican Party.

And that’s just one of Greitens’ felony charges. In an unrelated matter, Josh Hawley, Missouri’s Republican attorney general, announced Tuesday his uncovering of evidence the governor committed another felony — this time by using a donor list from veterans charity The Mission Continues, which Greitens used to run, to solicit funds for his gubernatorial campaign. Because charities enjoy special tax-exempt status in the United States, they are not allowed to make contributions to candidates or political parties. The attorney general has since referred the matter to the St. Louis prosecutor currently investigating Greitens’ alleged use of sexual blackmail. She has charged him with “felony computer tampering.”

Many top Republicans, seeing the damage Greitens has caused to their political agenda, have asked the governor to resign. This includes Hawley, the attorney general, as well as Sen. Ron Richard, the Senate president pro tempore, and Rep. Todd Richardson, the Speaker of the House — three of the most well-known Republicans in the state. U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, another Missouri Republican, has also demanded the governor step down.

In the midst of this quagmire rests the backdrop of McCaskill’s re-election campaign. In a state Republican President Donald Trump won by nearly 19 points just two years ago, McCaskill survives as one of Missouri’s two remaining Democrats in statewide elected office. The other, State Auditor Nicole Galloway, assumed her role in 2015 through an appointment from then-Gov. Jay Nixon. That means McCaskill is the only statewide Democrat to have won her position by winning more votes than a Republican rival. To remain a senator, she must win again in November. Greitens’ scandal makes it possible.

A new poll released Saturday puts Greitens’ approval rating at 37 percent. By contrast, the beleaguered President Trump maintains a 50-percent approval rating among Missourians. In such a deep-red state, this bodes ill for Republicans — and extremely well for McCaskill.

In the general election, McCaskill will likely face the current attorney general, Republican Josh Hawley. He’s an impressive candidate, who we’ve written about before. Before the Greitens scandal broke, he was nearly a shoo-in for his party’s nomination, and he stood a better-than-even chance of besting McCaskill in a head-to-head contest.

Now, neither is certain. Should Greitens remain in office in the months to come, the August primary will become a proxy war for Missouri Republicans, pitting Greitens’ loyalists against his many critics. That might get ugly. By calling for the governor’s resignation, Hawley has already declared himself a part of the latter camp. Unfortunately, the loyalists still outnumber the critics, although the trend is clearly not in Greitens’ favor. It’s hard to tell how the dynamics would change between now and August, but whatever occurs, the battle would serve to divide and weaken an already struggling party.

Hawley’s moral compass may very well cost him the nomination. If it doesn’t, however, and the attorney general pivots to face McCaskill, his mere association with the scandal-ridden Missouri Republican Party will hurt his candidacy. Independents and Democrats in Missouri, together, are a large enough block to overpower a weary Republican camp with low turnout on Election Day. The left and center will be riled up by the Greitens scandal. With a national environment leaning Democratic, and the fact that midterms are usually favorable to the party that doesn’t hold the White House, McCaskill, despite being a relatively staid Democratic presence in an ardently conservative state, may very well live to fight another day.

McCaskill will win — that is, if the center truly holds. But that’s no guarantee. A new dark-horse candidate, Kansas City attorney Craig O’Dear, could throw a wrench into the polarized political machine. “Oh dear” is right.

O’Dear is running for Senate as a centrist independent. His candidacy seeks to attract those dissatisfied with both major political parties. In Missouri, he’s picked the perfect contest. Republican fatigue is running high under the Greitens administration, but the deeply ingrained hatred of anything Democratic hasn’t been completely erased. O’Dear is working to find room in the middle. By siphoning off enough votes from the moderate edges of Hawley’s and McCaskill’s supporters, he may yet prevail.

O’Dear’s campaign website explains his governing philosophy. Neither Republicans nor Democrats are truly delivering results for the American people. This is due, primarily, to their inability to compromise with one another, O’Dear says. What Missouri needs is a seat at the table. This would be accomplished most effectively by a senator unbeholden to the close-minded politics of a national political apparatus — in other words, a centrist independent.

“This campaign gives the people of Missouri a real choice,” O’Dear’s website reads. “It is an opportunity to choose pragmatic problem solving over endless hyper-partisan warfare. We must unite, recover our sense of community, and put our country ahead of party.”

The website details five key principles of the centrist candidate:

First, we put our country above party and the public interest ahead of any special interest…

Second, we use common sense and find common ground to solve problems…

Third, we stand for the timeless values of opportunity, equality, and stewardship…

Fourth, we champion competition, transparency, and accountability in politics…

Fifth, we believe in the shared responsibility of civic engagement.

O’Dear’s campaign thus far seems light on representing any detailed policy. What exactly does the man stand for? What does being a “centrist” really mean? What exactly are the “pro-growth, pro-business” policies to which the website alludes?

Despite a lack of a detailed vision, however, O’Dear has picked an opportune moment to launch his candidacy. I, myself, am interested in what the man has to say. I believe partisanship in our nation has become a cult. We fear the other side far too much, and we are not intellectually honest about our own side’s many flaws. Humans are not naturally wholly conservative or wholly liberal, but hold a mix of both philosophies in tandem. Our culture rips this moderation away, warning us of the damning perils of one path or the other. An anti-cooperative spirit permeates political discourse. It’s toxic. This isn’t how it should be. Should O’Dear make a strong case for his candidacy, I might consider voting for him.

But there is a danger, the classic economic pitfall of all American attempts at a third party. If I vote for O’Dear, that means I can’t vote for my favored second choice. When the Republican and Democratic parties hold such a duopoly on electoral success, pulling the lever for a third party often feels like throwing a vote away. It’s a problem of negative polarization; the idea that I vote for one side primarily to see the opposing candidate lose. What makes O’Dear think he can overcome this dilemma? To gain traction, he must convince Missouri that Hawley and McCaskill are equally intolerable. Only then can he win the vote of those who truly believe a centrist path is right for Missouri.

O’Dear has yet to convince me. I still prefer McCaskill, a moderate Democrat, to Hawley, a relatively extreme conservative ideologue (if still a morally upstanding leader). But I’m certainly persuadable. Make your case, O’Dear. Missouri is waiting. ■

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