JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- The field of Republicans challenging Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill could get a surprise addition from a St. Louis businessman who has the ability to pour some of his own cash into a campaign.
John Brunner, the chairman of health care products company Vi-Jon Inc., confirmed to The Associated Press on Tuesday that he is considering entering Missouri's 2012 Senate race.
"I'm very serious," Brunner said. "We've got a fire raging here in our country and our economy. It's going to take an additional level of character and competence to deal with the crisis."
McCaskill, a freshman senator closely aligned with President Barack Obama, is among the Republicans' top targets as they seek to regain a majority in the Senate in next year's election.
Already vulnerable because of Missouri's swing-state status, McCaskill recently took a sharp political hit for her taxpayer-funded travel on an airplane in which she and her husband have an ownership stake. She reimbursed the federal government $88,000 and later paid St. Louis County about $320,000 in back property taxes, interest and penalties related to the plane.
Yet Republicans have struggled to coalesce around a challenger. The only two declared candidates so far are former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman of Rolla and St. Louis attorney Ed Martin, a former gubernatorial chief of staff who lost a bid for Congress last year. Both Steelman and Martin reported fairly lackluster fundraising in the first quarter of 2011 compared to McCaskill's $1 million in receipts.
Brunner, 59, of the St. Louis suburb of Frontenac, told the AP that he would be willing to put some of his own financial fortune into a Senate bid, although he declined to say how much. He has been in Washington, D.C., this week, where he has had meetings about a potential Senate bid.
"If I believe in myself, I'd make a contribution and hope that others feel the same way," Brunner said.
Also considering the Senate race is Republican U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, in whose suburban St. Louis district Brunner lives. Brunner has contributed about $9,000 to Akin's congressional campaigns over the past decade, as well as thousands more to other Republican candidates and political committees, according to the Federal Election Commission. Neither Akin nor Brunner gave a timeline for when they would announce a decision on entering the Senate race, and Brunner declined to say how Akin's decision would influence his own.
Neither McCaskill nor Steelman had any immediate comment about Brunner's potential candidacy. But Martin asserted that McCaskill would prefer to face an untested Republican candidate "who McCaskill and her special interest allies can then marginalize and demonize in the general election."
"Republicans need to unite around the best candidate who can beat Claire, and I welcome anyone to the race to compete to beat Claire," Martin said.
Brunner is a third-generation partial owner of Vi-Jon, which his grandparents founded under a different name in 1908 as a manufacturer of peroxide. Over the years, the company expanded to cosmetics and other health care products, such as nail polish remover and mouthwash. It produces primarily private-label products for stores but also makes some of its own brands, including Germ-X hand sanitizer.
In the 1990s, Brunner said the company incurred a lot of debt for new facilities and equipment that ultimately threatened the existence of the business. Much of the company was sold in 1995 and, since then, it has rebounded from a workforce of several dozen people to employ about 1,500, he said.
Brunner said his business experience taught him an important lesson for a potential Senate race.
"What was true of my company is true of our country," Brunner said. "You can't borrow your way to prosperity, it takes competence and character, and the only true hope is returning to the basic fundamentals that got you to a good position before you got off track."
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)