© 2022 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Government, Politics & Issues

On the trail: Onder ponders comeback after hiatus from elective office

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: During the waning days of April, reports surfaced that a defeated Missouri Republican was seriously considering an electoral comeback after time away from public life.

No, it wasn't former U.S. Rep. Todd Akin. It was Bob Onder, a former state representative from Lake St. Louis who fell short nearly five years ago in the hotly contested 9th congressional district Republican primary.

In that same week that Akin, R-Wildwood, grabbed attention for his interview with KSDK, Missouri Scout reported that Onder -- a medical doctor who also possesses a law degree -- was seriously considering a run for the state Senate. Because of term limits, Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, won't be able to run for re-election in the western St. Charles County seat he currently holds.

In an interview with the Beacon, Onder confirmed he was seriously considering the 2nd senatorial district seat. He said he'll be on 97.1 FM on Saturday to talk more about the race.

"I really felt the calling to serve for a long time. After 2008, I found myself saying, 'I'm very happy to be a private citizen for a while. But I'm willing to get back in it if there's a race where I can make a difference,'" Onder said. "And I really do think the Missouri Senate is a place where a good person can make a difference."

Onder burst on the political scene in 2006, when he won election to the Missouri House representing a district in a fast-growing part of St. Charles County. While his credentials as a doctor and lawyer drew attention, he also garnered a reputation in the Missouri House as a staunch opponent of abortion and embryonic stem cell research. He contributed to passing major legislation aimed at curbing illegal immigration, one of the bigger accomplishments of the 2008 legislative session.

But his career in electoral politics was brief. After then-U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof, R-Columbia, announced a run for governor, Onder joined four other Republicans seeking to replace him. After a decidedly hard-fought contest, Onder lost by about 10 percentage points to Blaine Luetkemeyer -- a St. Elizabeth Republican who won the general election.

Since 2008, Onder said he's focused on building his businesses and spending time with his family. But he added he's stayed engaged in politics. He's gone door to door for candidates he supports, made speeches at GOP and Tea Party rallies criticizing the Affordable Care Act and occasionally made political donations. 

And he's still a member of the state's Life Science Research Board, an appointment that he noted caused some controversy at the time. (Onder added the board hasn't had a lot to do in recent years: "We haven't had any money to appropriate recently. We've from time to time met to approve continuations of grants that we made back when we did have money.") 

Onder said that he has no regrets about 2008.

"I think that's true a lot of times in life that you learn a lot more when you lose than when you win. You learn more from your mistakes than your victories," Onder said. "When you win, you kind of look back at your self and say, 'man, I'm good -- I did everything right.' When you lose, you get more introspective and say 'just what did we do wrong? What could we have done better?' On the other hand, I have to say that Blaine Luetkemeyer has been a very good congressman and I'm proud to have him represent me in the U.S. Congress."

In next year's race for the 2nd District state Senate, Rupp's replacement will likely be determined in the GOP primary, and Onder may not be the only contender. Other potential contenders include former state Rep. Vicki Schneider, R-O'Fallon, and current state Rep. Chuck Gastchenberger, R-Lake St. Louis.

But Onder does have some advantages. For one thing, he proved in 2008 that he can raise plenty of money -- as well as use his own personal money if necessary. He also believes he has name recognition from his congressional run.

"I remember very early in the 2008 primary season talking to Blaine," Onder said. "And Blaine said, 'You know, Bob, I ran statewide before. And I have quite a bit of name recognition from that race.' At the time, I thought 'that can't make much of a difference. You were running statewide, but you were only spending a small amount of time within the 9th congressional district.' But it turned out that was a big advantage for Blaine. Blaine had run all over the state, but also all over the 9th congressional district. And people knew him pretty well from that race. He got out there and got to know a lot of key people.

"An analogous situation might hold in the state Senate race," he added. "I've talked to a lot of the public officeholders in St. Charles County and a lot of the central committee people. Without naming any particular names at this moment, I have a lot of support among those folks. And a lot of them are pretty enthusiastic about the prospect of me running."

Missouri politics has seen plenty of unsuccessful candidates staging successful comebacks. Some of the state's most prominent political figures -- including U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Roy Blunt, R-Mo., former U.S. Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., and former Gov. Mel Carnahan -- fit that designation. And in fact, Luetkemeyer ran unsuccessfully for state treasurer in 2004 before he ran for Congress.

"It's easy to get discouraged after a loss," Onder said. "I remember telling my wife Allison -- who was even more discouraged than I was -- [that] 'look -- every public servant who's ever done anything worth doing in politics has lost elections along the way. It's part of the game.' You can let that crush you or you can learn from it and let it make you stronger.

"That being said, I've really enjoyed my time out of public office too and building my business and spending more time with my family," he added. "It's with some reluctance that I re-enter public life if I do so. But also I think there is an opportunity here and really an opportunity to make a difference."

Where are they now?

If Onder does decide to run for the state Senate, he'll be the third veteran of the 9th congressional district contest to pursue another office.

Former state Rep. Judy Baker -- a Columbia Democrat who narrowly lost to Luetkemeyer in 9th District's general election -- came in second last year in a crowded Democratic primary for lieutenant governor. And former state Sen. Ken Jacob, D-Columbia -- who raised eyebrows when he engaged in debates with Onder on abortion during the primary season -- narrowly lost a bid last year for state representative.

Other candidates in that contest -- including former House Speaker Steve Gaw, D-Moberly, and former state Rep. Danie Moore, R-Fulton -- have retired from public life. Former MU football player and Hermann native Brock Olivo is now an assistant coach at Coastal Carolina University.

Only two participants in the scramble for the 9th District are still in office. The first is Luetkemeyer, who after redistricting now represents Missouri's 3rd congressional district in Congress.

The other is Marion County Presiding Commissioner Lyndon Bode, who ran in the Democratic primary as a conservative alternative to Baker, Gaw and Jacob. Bode has held his post since 1995, a time when a Democrat -- Hannibal native Harold Volkmer -- still held onto the U.S. Ninth District seat.

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.