Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich’s suicide last Thursday has prompted an outpouring of grief and remorse. But if the Missouri Republican Party sincerely wants to honor Schweich’s memory, beginning with his funeral on Tuesday, it will take a hard look at the way it conducts its business.
Politics is a contact sport, and Schweich knew that when he entered a GOP primary against an establishment candidate, former Missouri House Speaker Catherine Hanaway. But, although the reasons for his suicide remain unknown, a campaign was underway by elements within the party to bully and isolate the auditor.
Schweich was the target of a nasty radio ad that ridiculed his appearance, called him a weak candidate and falsely accused Schweich of being a pawn for the Democrats. The style of the low-ball ad is very similar to a commercial that Kansas City consultant Jeff Roe’s firm, Axiom Strategies, used last year against Greg Orman, the independent U.S. Senate candidate from Kansas.
Roe and Axiom work for Hanaway’s campaign, which is being bankrolled by more than $1 million from Rex Sinquefield, the mega-donor from St. Louis.
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The controversial ad was paid for by a committee called “Citizens for Fairness in Missouri.” Its treasurer is Seth Shumaker, a lawyer from Kirksville, Mo., who has been suspended for unprofessional conduct. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has reported that Shumaker filed six Sunshine Law requests with the auditor’s office, asking for nearly all of Schweich’s email correspondence while in office, as well as calendars and expense reports.
At the state Republican Party’s annual Lincoln Days meeting in Kansas City the weekend before his death, Schweich watched a couple of his allies on the state committee be replaced by people he considered less friendly. And he was distraught that the party elected John Hancock as its chairman.
Schweich had worried that Hancock had inaccurately told at least a couple of people that Schweich was Jewish. In Schweich’s mind, this was the equivalent of an anti-Semitic whisper campaign.
Hancock has said he thought for a time that Schweich was Jewish, and the misconception may have come up in conversations.
The dispute raises some burning questions. One is why Hancock, who specializes in candidate research, would not have known Schweich was Episcopalian. Another is why he was discussing a candidate’s religious or ethnic background at all. Hancock appears too damaged to continue as the chairman of a state Republican Party that should be striving for reform.
Schweich was easily angered and inclined to take things too personally. The personal attacks and torrent of oppositional research, coming a year and a half before the 2016 primary, were clearly designed to agitate the auditor and provoke a damaging outburst.
It is a case of party fratricide.
Missouri Republicans are ideally positioned to devour their own. The state has no contribution limits, and it has a wealthy individual, Sinquefield, who will spare no expense to elect candidates to support his causes. Roe is known as one of the nation’s most ruthless political operators. Campaigns quickly become expensive and vicious.
Schweich has been a disruptive force in Missouri Republican politics ever since he burst upon the scene five years ago with the audacious idea of mounting a primary challenge to then-U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt for an open U.S. Senate seat.
As state auditor, he fearlessly called out corruption in small towns and at the highest levels of state government. As a candidate for governor, he was taking the fight to his own party.
That fight was cut short in the most tragic manner. It is now the loss of Tom Schweich that should disrupt the Missouri Republican Party.