The “bad boy” has gone big time.
Jeff Roe, roundly criticized for years for taking politics too far into the gutter in Missouri, has emerged from the 2016 GOP presidential sweepstakes as the operative who ran the best campaign, who deployed the best analytics, who developed the best ground game.
He is, some D.C. insiders say, the next Karl Rove, who masterminded George W. Bush’s 2000 win.
Not bad for a one-time farm kid who always dreamed of running a presidential campaign.
“It’s a long way from Brookfield, Mo.,” he said in an interview.
Some will scream, with justification, that there is no justice in a world that appreciates the Roe brand of politics. But there is also this: Roe guided the fledgling Ted Cruz campaign in the most crowded Republican field in American history to a strong second-place finish. Cruz wound up outlasting Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, Scott Walker and all the rest.
He beat ’em all, except for a guy named Donald Trump.
So these days, when Roe speaks, people listen.
They’re listening at the major TV networks, Bloomberg News, The Huffington Post and Politico, the nation’s premier political website, where the young man who helped usher Sam Graves from tiny Tarkio, Mo., to a seat in Congress is now quoted regularly.
A journey it’s been.
What did Roe, 45, learn from his 19-month stint as campaign manager and a key aide to the Texas conservative?
Like managing the pace of a presidential campaign, which Roe called breathtaking. It was life on the knife’s edge, never knowing when a major campaign development would strike and remaining constantly prepared to respond the right way.
“It was,” Roe said, “like going from flying a kite to flying an F-16.”
He learned how to maximize Cruz’s ability to earn “free media,” or coverage from the mainstream press, while remaining on message. He learned the value of small-dollar fundraising and even recurring donations on the fifth day of every month, an area where Cruz excelled.
He learned about the value of creativity — there was that Cruz ad that featured Hillary Clinton beating a computer server with a baseball bat — and the need to constantly adjust campaign strategies.
First, the task for Cruz was demonstrating strength beyond Iowa, the first-in-the-nation test that Cruz won. Then there was the need to win on Super Tuesday, then a need to win a state that Cruz wasn’t expected to win, which he did in Wisconsin, then a need to amass enough delegates to show continuing viability against the indomitable Trump, which Cruz also managed.
Roe also learned about the value of sleep. In his younger years, he was always the last out of the office and the first back in. This year, he knew he needed to be nimble, quick and clear-minded to avoid self-inflicted political calamities.
Roe needed the ability to assess the latest polling and oversee social media messaging and email messaging and targeted ad buys and respond to the latest news while ensuring that Cruz was in the right state at the right time.
Exhilarating it was for a guy who always dreamed of doing just what he did.
“It was every single thing I hoped it would be and not a single thing I feared it would be,” he said.
In other words, he got to play with the most talented players in the game while overseeing a team that he insists was largely devoid of the kind of infighting that undermines so many big-time campaigns.
Would he do it again? Yes. But it won’t be with Trump, even though other Cruz staffers have migrated there. Like Cruz, Roe isn’t saying if he’ll back the presumptive nominee. It’s too early, Roe insisted. Trump still has much to prove.
This is the same Trump who haunted Roe almost from the start. The unrelenting media frenzy around Trump’s bid stunned Roe to the point where he questions whether TV moguls propped up the tycoon to boost ratings and drive advertising dollars.
Trump, he said, may be a once-in-a-lifetime candidate, a billionaire celeb who can get away with almost anything.
He can win, Roe said, if he makes the campaign about Clinton and not himself, if he develops a ground game in key swing states and employs the type of new-age voter analytics that target individuals, not just groups of similar voters.
These days, Roe is back working with his Kansas City political consulting company, Axiom Strategies, though he spends more time in Houston than he does here. But life is different.
For one thing, he just became father to a second daughter with the perfect GOP name, Reagan.
For another, he’s now on the national stage, fielding calls from the big-time political TV shows. Many of the major news outlets have written profiles of him. He’s got quite a story to tell. Bad boy to the next Karl Rove.
“Life,” he said, “is different now.”