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Craig O'Dear

Craig O'Dear. Photo provided by the O'Dear campaign.

Kansas City attorney Craig O’Dear will formally enter Missouri’s U.S. Senate race on Thursday as an independent, banking on an anti-partisan theme in what is shaping up as one of the most quintessentially partisan races in America this year.

O’Dear will launch his campaign under the auspices of the Centrist Project, a national effort to elevate nonpartisan candidates on the premise that the two major parties have become too uncompromising for most Americans.

“Our country is at a historically difficult moment,” said O’Dear, a partner with the St. Louis-based international law firm of Bryan Cave, which has a Kansas City office. “The hyper-partisan warfare of these two parties is a major part of the problem.”

O’Dear, 60, has never run for office before but has been active in fundraising for candidates of both major parties.

He joins a field that includes two frontrunners — incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Republican challenger Josh Hawley — who both are getting heavy backing from their respective national parties. The contest is seen as one of the most important this year in the two parties’ fight for control of Congress.

Missouri, once considered a “purple” state that could go either way in national elections, has been strongly Republican in the past few election cycles. Republican President Donald Trump won the state by almost 20 percentage points over Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Within that generally Republican atmosphere, though, are some indications that Missouri’s voters are less partisan than its political leaders. Though Trump won big here, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., in the same election, was narrowly re-elected against Democratic challenger Jason Kander, by a less-than 3 points.

“Even though Trump won by 19 points, I’ve talked to so many Trump voters who say that was an much about the alternative candidate as it was about Trump,” O’Dear said. “People are frustrated with the choices. The whole reason I’m running is to give them a different choice.”

In fact, in an era of partisanship so strong that it often seems to be the only thing driving both parties, O’Dear does tout some unusual bipartisan credentials. In the 2016 election cycle, he contributed money to both Clinton and Blunt, and hosted a fundraiser for Republican Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens.

In an interview this week, O’Dear said his politics leaned somewhat Republican for years, to the point of joining the Young Republicans when he was younger. He said that started to change about 10 years ago.

“Certainly part of it was the changes in the Republican Party, but also just changes in the political climate. I have never bought into the game of ‘red jerseys versus blue jerseys.’ I’ve always been more interested in policy,” he said.

“I see President Trump as a symptom of this environment, (but) this hyper-partisan warfare, this pre-dated Trump. My focus is, how do we address those divisions?”

On the issues, O’Dear tends to focus more on process than on specific policy positions. On health care, for example, “I don’t think the answer is government-run health care, but that doesn’t mean government doesn’t have a role in the process,” he said. “We need a legislative process that pulls all the good people and smart people in the Senate together in a bipartisan approach that really looks at why is it costing us so much. I don’t see either party doing that.”

Successful independent campaigns for the Senate are rare but not unheard of. Two independents currently sit there: Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, both of whom caucus with the Democrats. O’Dear said that, if elected, he wouldn’t regularly caucus with either party.

Though O’Dear set up an exploratory committee last month, he won’t formally enter the race until Thursday, kicking it off with a news conference in Kansas City.

As a result, he didn’t have to report fundraising totals in the round of federal campaign reports that came out last month. He declined this week to divulge how much money he had raised, saying only: “We have money. We’re not going to talk about that yet, but I feel good about it.”

The Centrist Project is a national nonprofit founded in 2013 by economist Charlie Wheelan, under the banner of what it calls “Country over party.” The group — which is in the process of changing its name to Unite America — is trying to get enough nonpartisan centrists elected to the Senate to force the two major parties to move toward the ideological center on policy issues.

Missouri’s primary election, which won’t affect independent candidates, is Aug. 7. The general election is Nov. 6.

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