One of the most-watched U.S. Senate races in the country last year took place in Kansas, where Greg Orman did something few independent candidates have ever done: scare the daylights out of the incumbent.
Running that campaign was Jim Jonas, a Charlotte native and scion of one of the area’s most respected Republican families.
Now Jonas is working on The Centrist Project, a group trying to replicate and expand on Orman’s success in Kansas. The project is looking for candidates in North Carolina and the other 33 states with 2016 Senate races.
“The country is in desperate need of somehow getting our politics back on track,” Jonas says. “And I don’t think the parties are capable of doing that on their own.”
It might seem an unusual pursuit for the 50-year-old Jonas.
His great-uncle, Charles Raper Jonas, was the Charlotte area’s first Republican congressman in a generation when he was elected to the first of 10 terms in 1952. His father – Jim Jonas’ great-grandfather – was Charles A. Jonas, who was elected to Congress in 1928.
A graduate of Myers Park High and Guilford College, Jim Jonas worked for a handful of Republican candidates and was once an aide to then-Republican consultant Roger Ailes, now chairman of Fox News. GOP is part of his DNA.
By the late ’90s Jonas was burning out on partisan politics. He started an advertising business in Denver and began to get involved in nonpartisan reform efforts. He has been active in some of the past decade’s most noted, if not very successful, attempts at reform.
In 2006 he joined Hamilton Jordan, former President Jimmy Carter’s chief of staff, and others to start Unity ’08. Designed to nominate a bipartisan “unity” presidential ticket at an online convention, the effort fell apart at the start of 2008.
Later he joined the advisory board of Americans Elect, another group that sought to end gridlock with a nonpartisan ticket chosen in rounds of online voting. Though it started with some promise, it never selected a candidate.
Now comes The Centrist Project. Unlike its predecessors, its goals are more modest. Instead of trying to elect a president, it wants to put five “independent-minded centrists” in the U.S. Senate.
Jonas says “a caucus of common sense in the middle” of a polarized Senate could swing the balance on contested issues and at least be a moderating force.
He says the project would offer candidates staffing, know-how and voter files. It also would provide money, including through super PACs from well-heeled donors. There are plenty of hurdles including finding credible candidates and getting them on state ballots.
Last year in Kansas, Orman got 43 percent of the vote against three-term incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Roberts. Based in part on that performance, as well as the surprising showings so far of people like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, Jonas thinks that The Centrist Project can work.
“I think that 2016 could possibly be one of the most disruptive elections the country has seen,” Jonas says. “I can tell you the independent, nonpartisan movement is moving.”