Government & Politics

KC political consultant Jeff Roe rides out backlash to Tom Schweich suicide

Political consultants Steve Glorioso (left) and Jeff Roe (second from right) talk with supporters of a failed tax hike measure last year.
Political consultants Steve Glorioso (left) and Jeff Roe (second from right) talk with supporters of a failed tax hike measure last year. The Kansas City Star

Will Kraus, a candidate for Missouri secretary of state, is certain.

Jeff Roe is still his guy.

“I plan to continue to use Jeff and Axiom Strategies,” the Lee’s Summit Republican said last week. “They’ve done a great job for me.”

It’s been more than a month since Roe, a well-known and often-feared campaign consultant, helped produce a mocking radio commercial in the Missouri governor’s race. The ad, aired in Kansas City and other markets, suggested state auditor and GOP candidate Tom Schweich was a “bug” and compared him with bumbling TV character Barney Fife.

Days after the spot aired, Schweich took his own life.

Some of Schweich’s friends quickly concluded the ad played a role in the suicide and accused Roe of bullying the candidate. Former U.S. Sen. Jack Danforth urged Republicans to walk away from Roe, a request he repeated last week.

“We should disassociate ourselves from anyone who conducts this sort of campaign,” he said in an email.

But nothing suggests candidates are taking Danforth’s advice, or that Schweich’s death dented Roe’s multimillion-dollar Kansas City-based political enterprise in any significant way.

Roe — who declined to comment for this story — remains the chief campaign strategist for Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who announced his presidential bid last week. Roe’s companies maintain longstanding connections with Republican U.S. Reps. Sam Graves of Missouri and Kevin Yoder of Kansas, as well as more than two dozen other candidates for federal office.

The Star reached out to six regional candidates, all with ties to Roe. All either declined to comment or failed to return phone calls and emails. None have publicly announced plans to leave Roe or his firm, Axiom Strategies.

Louie Wright, a candidate for the Kansas City Council, has paid one of Roe’s companies for campaign services. He said the relationship will continue.

“It’s never been my practice to abandon someone with whom I’ve had a longstanding relationship because of bad press,” he said.

Rival consultants and political operatives say they aren’t surprised by that loyalty.

“Axiom is good at what they do and you know what you want when you hire them,” said Stephanie Sharp, who works for candidates in Kansas. “I highly doubt recent events would change anyone’s mind.”

Steve Glorioso, a Democratic consultant who has worked with Roe on some ballot issues, agreed.

“Jeff is a tough, take-no-prisoners campaign consultant,” he said in an email. “He wins time and again, and candidates want a consultant who will win for them, period.”

Some colleagues said Axiom’s client roster remains intact because candidates believe Roe shouldn’t be held responsible for Schweich’s suicide. They said that the anti-Schweich radio ad, while tough, wasn’t unusually aggressive or fundamentally unfair, and that suicide is almost always an act without a clear motive.

At the same time, the 60-second spot was aimed primarily at Schweich’s appearance and personality, not his positions on issues. For weeks Schweich’s allies have said the ad wasn’t meant to convince voters, but rather to rattle the sometimes high-strung state auditor.

The ad, friends say, had the desired effect.

Some consultants said the controversy surrounding the ad might eventually cause Roe’s business to dip. That’s particularly true, they said, on issue campaigns, such as next year’s planned referendum on renewing Kansas City’s earnings tax.

They said some civic leaders — uncomfortable with the rough-and-tumble nature of electoral politics — may steer clear of any connection to Roe.

Controversy has defined Roe’s career.

In 2006, he ran TV ads chastising a disabled candidate for working for an adult publication. She actually sold ads for a company that owned that magazine and others.

He connected former Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes with “San Francisco values” during her unsuccessful effort to oust Graves.

He’s hired operatives to track opponents with video cameras, leading some to complain of unnecessary provocation and to file complaints with police. His deep research into his opponents’ personal records is legendary. He’s been accused of orchestrating a lawsuit to gain access to a candidate’s personal papers.

In 2014, a Roe mailer Photoshopped a candidate “in the classic Marlon Brando Godfather pose and likened him to a mobster,” according to The Dallas Morning News.

He was part of a long-running feud with former U.S. Sen. Kit Bond that eventually entangled both men in the controversy over fired U.S. attorneys during the George W. Bush administration.

Candidates have been known to hire Roe just to keep him from working for the other side.

Roe has never apologized for his approach.

“These are not prom-queen elections,” he has said. “Who’s elected, what their values are, all that determines the direction of the nation.”

He’s been paid by the payday loan industry and the Missouri Republican Party. He ran the unsuccessful campaign for the Jackson County health research sales tax.

In 2014, candidates for federal office paid Roe’s direct mail operation alone more than $4 million, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Candidates for state office in Missouri paid his company $2.6 million for direct mail pieces.

Some Democrats believe they can hurt Republicans in 2016 by combining Roe’s reputation and broad portfolio with the Schweich controversy. That’s particularly true if Catherine Hanaway is the GOP nominee for Missouri governor.

Roe is Hanaway’s consultant.

Polling shows Roe “can be an issue,” one consultant said.

Through a spokesman, Hanaway declined to comment about her relationship with Roe.

She suspended her campaign following Schweich’s suicide, but resumed it Friday. She pledged that her consultants no longer would be involved in negative attacks like those that had targeted Schweich, The Associated Press reported.

But some fellow Republicans may make Roe an issue.

Missouri state Sen. Mike Parson of Bolivar says he’s thinking about running for governor. He repeated his sharp criticism of Roe’s tactics last week.

“For some reason, we say it’s OK to win at all costs,” he told the Missourinet website. “But it’s not OK to win at all costs when you’ve got to destroy somebody’s lives. … This has been going on for way too long, and it needs to stop.”

Roe’s role in the Schweich story could also become an issue in the 2016 presidential race.

His specific job with the Cruz campaign isn’t clearly defined. A Washington-based story in January described him as the campaign’s “chief strategic and logistics decision-maker,” and Roe now spends much of his time in Texas.

He was in Washington attending a well-known conservative conference when Schweich killed himself.

The Daily Caller, a conservative website, connected Cruz and Roe with the Schweich suicide in a story posted March 16. Mother Jones, a liberal publication, posted a similar story last week.

So far, their stories have not migrated to more traditional national political media. If that happens, some political scientists said, Cruz’s GOP opponents may more aggressively raise the Roe connection.

The tactics of other bare-knuckle consultants — Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, James Carville — have become an issue in past presidential contests.

“Ronald Reagan’s famous 11th Commandment (was) ‘thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican,’” noted political science professor Dennis Goldford at Drake University in Iowa, the state with the first contest of the 2016 presidential election.

Cruz’s opponents might bend the commandment by attacking Roe.

“They could speak ill of Cruz by arguing that his main guy speaks ill of other Republicans,” Goldford said.

While consultants and colleagues debate the fallout from the Schweich episode, Roe is said to be rethinking his tactics in the wake of the tragedy. It isn’t yet known if that re-examination will lead to a less aggressive campaign style.

Brian Calfano, a political science professor at Missouri State University, said he was skeptical the Schweich suicide would lead to any long-lasting changes in political tactics.

“Exploiting group-based differences is easy,” he said. “Which is why I’m afraid that, once the current awareness involving the Schweich tragedy subsides, it will be back to business as usual.”

Roe’s firm takes part in awards competitions sponsored by the American Association of Political Consultants. Asked last week to comment on the Schweich story, a spokeswoman referred The Star to the group’s ethics code.

“I will treat my colleagues and clients with respect,” the code says. “And never intentionally injure their professional or personal reputations.”

Philadelphia-based Democratic political consultant Mark Nevins said living up to that code isn’t just Roe’s job. All participants in the process — candidates, consultants, journalists, voters — must respond to cleaner campaigns, he said.

“We all share some burden of responsibility for trying to take the sharp elbows out of political communications,” Nevins said.

“It doesn’t need to be as vituperative as it’s become,” he said. “People can disagree without being disagreeable, and that’s what has been lost.”

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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