John Wood got into the Missouri Senate race largely due to former Gov. Eric Greitens.
After Greitens ran an ad where he carried a shotgun and said he was selling “RINO hunting permits” — an acronym that means “Republican in name only” — Wood left his job working on the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, moved back to Missouri and launched a campaign as an independent candidate because he felt his own Republican Party had become too extreme.
At the time, Greitens was leading in the polls. There was a path, potentially, for a traditional Republican who didn’t carry the baggage of a former governor.
Then Greitens was routed by Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt in the primary. Wood, as he promised when he first launched, is staying in the race.
“That equation is taken out of it, but the message that I have is really the same,” Wood said. “I think aside from those personal flaws of Greitens, I don’t really see much difference between Schmidt and Greitens. They’re both on embracing the extreme divisive rhetoric and symbolism.”
Schmitt joined the unsuccessful lawsuit that sought to overturn the 2020 election results, a significant contrast from Wood, who worked for the committee trying to determine former President Donald Trump’s role in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Schmitt also defended Trump this week after FBI agents searched Mar-a-Lago for classified documents that the former president may not have returned to the National Archives, promising to take a “wrecking ball” to the Department of Justice.
Schmitt’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Independent candidacies are common in elections. Candidates survey the field, decide they don’t like the options presented and launch a campaign. It is uncommon that they win.
“I think it’s appealing because independents are so great in number because a high percentage of Americans these days say that they don’t like either the Democratic or Republican Party,” said Samara Klar, a political science professor at the University of Arizona. “If you’re kind of like an entrepreneurial politician, it seems like this is a pretty ripe time to swoop in there. But unfortunately, there’s just not a big appetite for it among voters.”
Missouri does not keep track of the party registration of voters, but nationally around 41% of voters identified as independents in July, according to Gallup. That large voting bloc can be appealing for candidates who believe there is a hunger for a different voice than the two major political parties.
Wood has pointed to Pew Research polling that shows 55% of Americans believe the Democratic Party is too extreme and 61% of Americans believe the Republican Party is too extreme.
“I’m still focusing on a message of unifying and healing our country and appealing to the vast majority of Missouri voters who are within the mainstream and want somebody to go to Washington who’s going to be constructive and work to get something done and be part of a governing coalition, not just to burn everything down.” Wood said.
Democratic nominee Trudy Busch Valentine has been using similar rhetoric in her campaign, saying she wants to address the divisive nature of national politics.
But the numbers can be misleading. Klar, who’s research focuses on independent voters, said that while people like to identify as independents, they very rarely switch back and forth between political parties depending on the election. She said the group is a mixture of voters with a wide range of political viewpoints.
“When you’re trying to appeal to this elusive voting bloc called independents, you are essentially trying to appeal to a group of people who don’t agree on very much,” Klar said. “Independence are not particularly moderate. They are liberal, they are conservative, some are to the left of the Democratic Party, some are to the right of the Republican Party. So there’s just like not much any cohesive group there.”
Historically, it is difficult for independent candidates to win an election. The last time Missouri voted for U.S. Senate, in 2018, there was an independent candidate in the race, Kansas City lawyer Craig O’Dear. He got just 1.4% of the vote.
When O’Dear’s campaign launched, the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics examined the success rate of independent candidates in Senate elections.
The center found that independent candidates have only won 18 Senate elections since 1913. Of the 14 candidates who won more than 35% of the vote as an independent running against both a Republican and a Democrat, eight of them were incumbents that either switched to independent or failed to win their party’s primary. Another four were members of the Farmer-Labor Party, which had some strength in Minnesota following World War I and eventually merged with the Minnesota Democratic Party.
One was U.S. Sen. Angus King, who had previously served as governor and was seen as the Democratic Party’s preferred candidate even though the Democratic Party fielded a candidate.
The Republican Party has largely coalesced around Schmitt. He’s attracted the major Republican mega-donors, like Rex Sinquefield and August Busch III.
Busch Valentine has the backing of the establishment Democratic Party, along with the ability to spend large amounts of money on her own campaign. She was endorsed by U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones and former U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan in the primary.
Voters often perceive independent candidates as “unelectable,” particularly when the Democratic and Republican Parties have aligned behind their candidates. That can hurt their ability to pick up votes.
“People really don’t like to think that their vote was wasted,” Klar said. “They want to feel as though they are contributing to the winning team.”
Wood acknowledged the importance of making sure voters believed he is a viable candidate. Already, his campaign has been boosted by a PAC funded by former U.S. Sen. John Danforth, who has pledged $20 million to promoting Wood’s candidacy.
Danforth, a Republican who represented Missouri from 1976 to 1995, led the effort to recruit then-Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley into the 2018 Senate race. He cut ties with Hawley following the Missouri senator’s objection to the 2020 Electoral College results.
Wood last week delivered 22,000 signatures to the Missouri Secretary of State’s Office in support of his petition to join the ballot. The requirement is 10,000 signatures. He will likely be added to the ballot in the near future upon verification of the signatures.
“Showing viability is very important. As somebody who doesn’t have the infrastructure of one of the two major parties behind them, I recognize that I’m starting out with a disadvantage,” Wood said. “But I think the strength of my message, and the fact that resonates with most Missouri voters is what’s going to propel me forward.”
That message is a conservative one, but with an emphasis on governing and finding compromise in the mold of a traditional Republican in the U.S. Senate rather than the more Trumpian emphasis of going to the Capitol as a “fighter” who will “drain the swamp.”
Wood said he believes his campaign will appeal to moderate voters, those who feel that both the Democratic and Republican parties are more focused on scoring political points than on governing. But to do so, he would have to appeal to Democratic voters as a former clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who holds most of the Republican Party’s traditional positions on social issues and the economy.
Already, Busch Valentine’s campaign has attempted to emphasize Wood’s traditional Republican stances as too extreme.
“Both of Trudy’s opponents are partisan, out of touch extremists who would march in lock-step with party bosses to further erode the rights of Missourians, including the right to safe and legal abortion,” said Jacob Long, Busch Valentine’s communications director. “Trudy is the only candidate in this race solely focused on addressing the issues that actually matter most to Missourians and putting the needs of working families first.”