Government & Politics

Campaign manager for soaring Ted Cruz moves from Kansas City to national stage

Jeff Roe (top, wearing blue pullover) watched closely as Ted Cruz talked with the media after arriving last week at a campaign event in Winterset, Iowa.
Jeff Roe (top, wearing blue pullover) watched closely as Ted Cruz talked with the media after arriving last week at a campaign event in Winterset, Iowa. kmyers@kcstar.com

It’s Ted Cruz’s moment — and Jeff Roe’s.

On a chilly January evening here, the presidential candidate stands before a gaggle of reporters, confidently answering questions with the ease of a polished politician. Roe, the Cruz campaign’s manager and a Missouri political phenomenon, stands quietly nearby. Listening. Calculating.

Has it been only a year since Cruz, a U.S. senator from Texas, had the support of just 6 percent of Iowa’s Republicans? Now he leads the Iowa polls. Crowds are growing. Heads are nodding.

And there are whispers. It isn’t just Iowa, they say. Maybe Cruz can win this whole shebang.

Maybe Roe — intensely controversial, brilliant, hypercompetitive — is a major reason. If Cruz is the GOP nominee … well, it doesn’t get much bigger than that.

That kind of chatter is growing louder in Roe’s Kansas City backyard; in Washington, D.C.; and in other places where savvy politicians gather. The 45-year-old political operative, at the center of local and state elections for so many years, is moving to an elite, national stage.

Roe is cautious.

“We have a long way to go,” he tells a Star reporter. “We haven’t won a single state yet. In politics you’re either a hero or an idiot on any given day.”

But: “If we do what we should do … it’s going to be a long ride.”

Politics ain’t beanbag

Roe’s ride to the top of the political consultant class has been two decades in the making — and bumpy.

He’s not well known to the general public, although that’s changing. His name increasingly pops up in campaign profiles in national publications. Rolling Stone magazine is sniffing around.

But Roe is more famous in his home state of Missouri than many of the politicians he’s put in office. For much of the 21st century, his bare-knuckle, politics-ain’t-beanbag approach has defined the electoral landscape in the state.

Roe has routinely battled Democrats. In 2006 he mauled Democrat Sara Jo Shettles’ campaign for Missouri’s 6th District House seat, held by U.S. Rep. Sam Graves. A Roe-produced ad linked Shettles with “smut” because she sold ads for a company that published an adult magazine.

Shettles had nothing to do with the adult publication, and she remains bitter about her experience with Roe.

“It’s a game to him,” she said. “He’s done rotten things to people with long-lasting impact.”

In 2008, Roe demolished former Kansas City mayor Kay Barnes’ congressional campaign against Graves by linking her with the “San Francisco values” of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Roe once ordered aides to comb through opponents’ trash, looking for campaign fodder. He hired operatives to track candidates with video cameras, leading some to complain of unnecessary provocation and to file complaints with police.

Roe has long defended such tactics.

“These are not prom-queen elections,” he said in 2007. “Who’s elected, what their values are, all that determines the direction of the nation.”

And those who have worked on those campaigns, and others, insist Roe’s efforts are not out of bounds.

“Jeff Roe is not a villain in somebody’s melodrama,” said Woody Cozad, a lobbyist and former director of the Missouri Republican Party. “Politics in Missouri have been pretty rough from the get-go.”

Yet Roe has had serious run-ins with Republicans as well.

He began his career in 1994 as an assistant to Graves, then a state legislator. He became Graves’ chief of staff after the Republican was elected to the U.S. House in 2000.

But his brash style quickly alienated the staff of then-U.S. senator Kit Bond, who was accustomed to calling the shots for Republicans in Missouri. The bitter Roe-Bond feud was common knowledge in the state GOP.

The dispute reached its climax in 2005 when Bond staffers tried to get Roe fired from Graves’ congressional office. When Graves stood firm, the Bond staff convinced the White House to remove his brother Todd from the U.S. attorney’s post in Kansas City.

Todd Graves remains a friend of Roe’s.

“Anyone who plays at a high level,” he said last week, “is going to be controversial.”

An ad, a tragedy

In 2005, Roe established Kansas City-based Axiom Strategies, a political consulting and direct-mail firm. He soon expanded his political portfolio — and his business — by working for Republican clients across the country, including Kevin Yoder in Kansas.

Roe also became involved in Kansas City area issue politics, to mediocre success. He ran a campaign for a taxpayer-supported soccer complex in Johnson County and lost. He ran the campaign to increase taxes for the Kansas City Zoo and won. He worked to convince voters to repeal the Kansas City earnings tax and lost badly.

In 2013, Roe orchestrated the $1 million campaign to enact a Jackson County sales tax for medical research. Voters clobbered the idea.

Yet Axiom’s importance as a go-to source for political advice has remained intact. Roe’s brilliance as a data-driven, poll-dependent operative led many Republican candidates to compete for his help. Some wanted to hire Axiom just to prevent it from working for their opponents.

In 2014, at least two GOP candidates for Missouri governor — Catherine Hanaway and Tom Schweich — tried to hire Axiom for their campaigns. Hanaway won the competition.

In February 2015, Roe drafted and aired a radio ad on Hanaway’s behalf, comparing Schweich with fictional deputy sheriff Barney Fife. A few days later Schweich took his own life.

Friends say Schweich’s fragile mental state played a major role in that tragedy, and inaccurate claims that Schweich was Jewish concerned the state auditor. But some Schweich associates believe he was particularly worried about Roe — he kept a computer file, friends say, of information he believed damaging to the consultant.

Roe’s radio ad, the friends say, played a part in pushing Schweich over the edge.

“The commercial had no factual basis whatsoever. None. Zero,” Missouri Sen. Mike Parson, a Republican, said at the time. “It speaks volumes as to how far out of hand things have become, to base attacks on someone’s appearance, and to make reference to one being small.”

Former U.S. senator Jack Danforth of Missouri, a Republican, called the ad’s producers bullies, and he has not changed his mind.

“I meant everybody behind that ad,” he said last week, including Roe.

Roe defended the commercial at the time. But he was shaken by the experience and began to reduce his direct role in Missouri campaigns.

He soon had a more important client.

Cruz control

Few of Roe’s Missouri friends are surprised at his success with the Cruz campaign. Roe said he “begged” for the job after working for Cruz’s 2012 Republican Senate opponent in Texas.

“Anyone who knows Jeff at all knew that not only would he get a chance to do this, but he’d be very good at it,” said Jason Klindt, a lobbyist and former Roe associate.

Roe joined the Cruz campaign as its manager more than a year ago. He had done work for presidential candidates before — Mike Huckabee and Rick Perry — but Cruz is his first chance at the top of the organizational chart.

Like most political consultants, Roe is reluctant to publicly discuss specific strategies of the Cruz campaign. He says conservatives in Iowa are coalescing around his candidate, and “you try to stay out of the way.”

Others, though, say Cruz’s ascendance is based largely on the candidate’s good performance in debates, his careful repetition of conservative religious themes and especially his reluctance to directly attack Donald Trump.

“It’s brilliant what he’s doing,” said Democratic operative Steve Glorioso, referring to Roe. “Other candidates are getting bashed by the waves Trump is creating. Cruz is just sailing in behind them.”

Cruz is highly organized in early battleground states — “better than anything that I have seen,” said U.S. Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican and Cruz supporter — and raised $26.4 million through the end of September 2015, more than any Republican candidate except Ben Carson. Money and organization are hallmarks of a Roe campaign.

But the bitter attack mail pieces or darkly aggressive TV ads Roe has used in other races have been largely absent from the Cruz effort. Cruz has been seen on television — reading to his children.

A kinder, gentler Jeff Roe? Perhaps. Some friends think the Schweich uproar has made Roe more cautious. Others say negative ads are often less effective in multicandidate primaries and can backfire in places like Iowa.

Cruz also is a more experienced and confident politician than many of Roe’s clients. It’s likely he’s less reliant on Roe than other candidates would be, and other advisers may play a role in the campaign’s messaging.

There also are signs Roe thinks compromise may be preferable to confrontation in a presidential race. In 2014, Roe worked quietly to oust U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp in Kansas, a well-known tea party conservative. A Huelskamp ally was so upset he complained about Roe last fall in a meeting of fellow conservatives.

The old Jeff Roe might have pushed back. The new Roe wrote Huelskamp a conciliatory letter, praising the Republican for his “principled, conservative leadership in Washington.” Roe promised not to help any of Huelskamp’s primary opponents, and peace was restored.

But the biggest reason for the lack of traditional Roe aggressiveness may be the campaign’s increasing reliance on data and precise polling for its strategy. Using computer data and other information, Roe and other consultants can now track and profile thousands of primary voters, tailoring the campaign’s message to appeal to them directly.

Microtargeting voters may reduce the need for a blast of negativity on television or in the mailbox.

“He’s been on the front edge of data for better than a decade,” said Missouri GOP chairman John Hancock. “Clearly that’s played a role.”

Yet colleagues caution against drawing the wrong conclusions about Roe’s success with Cruz.

Roe’s advice is working, they say, largely because Cruz is considered an outsider candidate in a year voters deeply distrust political experience. Roe would be less successful, the argument goes, working for a more mainstream Republican like former Florida governor Jeb Bush or Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.

Roe and Cruz, it turns out, were made for each other.

“Jeff Roe’s never been the establishment,” said David Steelman, a veteran of Missouri politics for two decades. “He never was the establishment political consultant in Missouri. He’s never going to be.”

For his part, Cruz seems satisfied.

“Our campaign manager is a very, very talented, incredibly effective manager,” the senator told reporters after his Iowa speech.

Hans and Franz

Shortly after taking the Cruz campaign job, Roe and his family moved from Kansas City to Houston, where the campaign is headquartered. Some days he’s there, sometimes he’s on the bus with the candidate.

His wife expects the couple’s second child later this year.

He has battled a weight problem for years and is known for chewing tobacco on the job. He suffered a serious health scare a few years back.

Yet Roe seems to have adjusted to the brutal pace of a presidential campaign. He’s trying to get more sleep, and he sets aside Sundays for family time.

“The velocity of a presidential campaign is much different,” he said. “It’s faster.”

Federal election records show the Cruz campaign is paying Axiom roughly $30,000 a month for its services. Roe says he remains an owner of Axiom but has turned over day-to-day operations to others.

The Roe family still owns a home in Kansas City.

Roe’s friends are watching his success closely. Tracy Bottoms, now a school superintendent, was Roe’s roommate at Northwest Missouri State University in the 1990s.

“You always knew where he stood on political issues,” Bottoms recalled, chuckling. “That probably hasn’t changed any.”

Marcia Cunningham taught Roe Spanish for three years back at the high school in Brookfield, Mo., Roe’s hometown.

“He was one of my favorite students,” she recalled, recounting Roe’s fondness for performing a skit lifted from “Saturday Night Live.” “I think of him (and a friend) dressed up as Hans and Franz,” the European weightlifters.

“He wants to pump you up,” she said. “And that’s exactly what he’s doing for Ted Cruz right now.”

Dave Helling: 816-234-4656, @dhellingkc

Steve Kraske: 816-234-4312, @stevekraske

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