One year ago today, the Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich took his own life.
Schweich’s political mentor, former Sen. John Danforth, blames Ted Cruz’s campaign manager, Jeff Roe, for contributing to his death and said Cruz’s decision to hire him should give voters pause.
It’s not a universal view—far from it. Roe rejects any responsibility for the suicide, and police haven’t in any way assigned him with legal culpability for Schweich’s death. But as Cruz’s opponents question his character, some point to Schweich’s death as evidence of a morally sick presidential campaign.
At the very least, it’s a PR nightmare.
As Cruz gears up for a month of primaries that will likely determine the Republican nominee, his campaign manager has gotten significant attention. That includes a Page One New York Times story describing Roe as “an operative with a reputation for scorching earth, stretching truths, and winning elections.”
Danforth says the truth is less sexy: that Roe loses—a lot—and that his bad-boy brand is a major hindrance to Cruz’s presidential hopes.
A year ago, Roe was working for Catherine Hanaway, who was (and still is) running in the primary to be Missouri’s next Republican gubernatorial nominee. Schweich, then the state auditor, was the contest’s frontrunner. The race got ugly fast.
One of Hanaway’s supporters, John Hancock, started telling people that Schweich was Jewish. Hancock said he may have mentioned Schweich’s heritage to a few people as a neutral fact, and didn’t intend to hurt his chances by stoking anti-Semitism.
Schweich, in fact, was not Jewish; he was Episcopalian, though of Jewish ancestry. Schweich suspected Hanaway’s allies had launched an anti-Semitic whisper campaign against him—a prospect he found deeply disturbing, according to reports from local and national publications.
Another part of the race was weighing on his mind as well: a radio ad, narrated by a Frank Underwood sound-alike, that criticized his physical appearance by saying he looked like the deputy sheriff in The Andy Griffith Show. The ad, which you can listen to here, also called Schweich weak.
“Once Schweich obtains the Republican nomination, we will quickly squash him like the little bug that he is,” intoned the narrator.
Roe, working for Hanaway’s campaign, took responsibility for the ad. He told The Kansas City Star that he paid for it to air during The Rush Limbaugh Show. The ad left Schweich deeply shaken, according to his friends.
“I talked to Tom two days before he shot himself to death and he was terribly upset,” Danforth told The Daily Beast. “And he was upset about two things: One was the radio commercial that was being run making fun of his physical appearance. But even more, he was upset about what I would call a fishing expedition in the waters of anti-Semitism.”
Two days after that conversation, Schweich shot himself. The death shocked the Missouri political world. According to The Washington Post, his wife subsequently told police that he’d talked about suicide in the past while holding a gun.
Danforth said Roe bears some responsibility for Schweich’s death.
“Yes, of course, of course he does,” he said. “When two days before a man shoots himself to death he’s upset about a radio commercial and it’s Roe’s commercial—of course. You don’t just do dirty things to people and then just walk away from it as though, ‘Oh, I didn’t do anything.’ Of course you did. ‘I’m not responsible.’ Of course you are. Of course you’re responsible.”
Danforth made similar comments in the homily for Schweich’s funeral, which he delivered.
“Words, for Jesus, could be the moral equivalent of murder,” he said in the homily last year. “He said if we insult a brother or sister, we will be liable. He said if we call someone a fool, we will be liable to hell.”
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Roe declined to give additional comment on any allegations of culpability for Schweich’s death.
A few months after the suicide, Roe told The Kansas City Star that the death had saddened him. And he defended the ad.
“His resemblance to Barney Fife had been characterized in Missouri newspapers,” Roe told the paper. “He made fun of himself on the stump. It was a parody.”
Speaking with The Daily Beast, Roe said attacks on the moral character of Cruz’s campaign are meritless.
“This campaign is being fueled by millions of people around the country who are putting their heart and soul into electing a consistent conservative, and of course our opponents would have to attack our underlying credibility of telling the truth,” he said.
“They want to change the subject from their liberal records, that they admit, and that’s exactly what we see here,” Roe added.
Though Danforth—the elder statesman of Missouri Republican politics—blames Roe for the death, other prominent conservatives in the state defend him.
“Nobody should be blamed for a guy’s suicide,” said Ed Martin, the president of Eagle Forum, which is based in St. Louis. “I don’t lay it on Roe or anybody.”
Martin added that he disapproved of Danforth’s homily.
“Danforth’s homily, when I sat in the pew, it was a terrible thing—it was a terribly inappropriate thing,” he said. “Danforth should have held a press conference afterwards, not at the eulogy. And because of that, it really spun the whole argument in a way that wasn’t really fair.”
And he said the attacks Schweich faced are just politics as usual—and that if he hadn’t committed suicide, they wouldn’t have drawn special reprobation.
Bill Kenney, who heads Missouri’s Public Service Commission, concurred.
“I think any politician realizes that politics is politics,” said Kenney, who is a former state senator. “The radio ads didn’t cause Tom Schweich to take his life.
“I like Jeff,” he added. “I’m glad I’m out of politics so I don’t have him against me.”
After Schweich’s death, many called for a change in Missouri’s political culture.
“The auditor might have pulled the trigger, but the bullies who were campaigning against him held the gun to his head,” read an editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“Tom Schweich is a martyr for the cause,” the same editorial said.
But a year later, Danforth said, things aren’t better. And now, one of the men he holds partly culpable for Schweich’s death is running a top-tier presidential campaign.
Danforth also said the so-called dirty tricks that have damaged the Cruz campaign’s reputation are all classic Jeff Roe. As examples of those tricks, he pointed to the “voter violation” mailer in Iowa, the false statement that Carson was about to drop out of the presidential race, and the use of a photoshopped image of Marco Rubio shaking hands with President Obama.
“I don’t know Roe, but I know what he did to Schweich,” he said. “And as soon as I saw what happened to Carson in Iowa, I said to myself, this is Jeff Roe.”
Martin said Cruz shouldn’t be surprised that his campaign is taking significant heat for its tactics. After all, he said, that’s what Cruz should have expected when he hired Roe: controversy and criticism.
“He likes to play very aggressively and flashily,” Martin said. “There are plenty of people who do hardball tactics who you never hear from, you never know. Then there’s the Lee Atwater model, where you talk about it, and the Jeff Roe model, where you revel in it.
“He’s got a problem now,” Martin continued. “And I bet they’ll address it, but they definitely have a perception problem.”
Danforth said the Cruz campaign has far greater problems than its image.
“In The New York Times article about Roe it said, ‘Well, he’s a master of dirty tricks, but it works,’” Danforth said. “Well, I don’t think it does.”
Danforth noted that while Roe has helped several candidates win statewide races, he’s also chalked up a number of high-profile losses—including a blistering defeat in Jackson County, where he led a $1 million effort in 2013 to hike sales taxes. Fewer than 14 percent of voters ended up supporting the effort.
“I don’t think losing a campaign in Kansas City 86 to 14 is exactly a stellar accomplishment,” Danforth said. “You almost have to try to do that. Who’d ever hire this guy?”
Other statewide losses include Sarah Steelman’s defeat in the 2008 gubernatorial primary, Brad Lager’s 2008 general election bid for treasurer, and Bill Stouffer’s campaign in the 2012 Republican primary for secretary of state.
Roe has won plenty of races, especially on the local and congressional levels. But statewide, he’s also lost a lot.
A year later, Schweich’s family and friends still grieve.
“I think he was probably too sensitive a person to be in elective politics, but so what?” Danforth said. “Does that mean that we all only want the rough-and-tumble people in politics? I don’t think so. Is it OK to pick on somebody who is sensitive? I don’t think so.”