January 21, 2016


TED CRUZ'S HOWITZER : Equal parts drill sergeant, data junkie, brawler, and entrepreneur, Jeff Roe will do anything to win. Just watch. (ANDY KROLL, JANUARY 20, 2015, nEW rEPUBLIC)

The Cruz campaign's success so far confirms what many people who've watched Roe's ascent have been saying for years. "I've believed for some time that Jeff Roe is a Karl Rove-level political talent," said Gregg Keller, a former executive director of the American Conservative Union. "I've done four or five presidential campaigns. I've run campaigns in virtually every state in the country. And I have not come across an operative of my generation who I believe is more talented than Jeff Roe."

The canny strategy and smooth, on-message operation of the Cruz campaign have gotten plenty of attention. But the man behind it has not. He prefers it that way. Out on the trail, Roe generally sticks close to the Cruz campaign bus rather than follow his candidate into small-town coffee shops and local libraries. When he does venture off the bus, though, you can't miss him. The guy's big, all gut and jowls, resembling a political cartoonist's idea of a fat cat, but dressed in jeans and an oversized "Cruz 2016" fleece. He has a thin goatee, a gelled flick of hair, and thick hands often wrapped around an empty soda bottle for catching the spit juice from his beloved Red Man Golden Blend chewing tobacco.

What we've yet to see in this campaign is Roe's other trademark attribute: the brass-knuckled approach to winning that's made him many enemies. From his earliest days running state and local campaigns, he's taken a scorched-earth approach to politics. Roe and his tactics have been blamed for damaging opponents' lives and reputations, and even for contributing to a gubernatorial candidate's suicide. (Roe doesn't exactly hide from this reputation: His web site features headlines describing him as "ruthless" and a "leading practitioner of hard-ball politics.")

On an early January swing through Iowa, Roe tended to linger at the crowd's edge or at the back of whatever room he was in, studying the size of the crowd, monitoring his Blackberry. That's where I found him during a Cruz stump speech in Spirit Lake, Iowa, standing near the untouched salad buffet at a Godfather's Pizza. For weeks, I'd gotten nowhere emailing and calling Roe for an interview. He grimaced at hearing my request in person, but then spoke to me for a while, staying off the record. (We would subsequently talk twice more in person and twice by phone.) In recent months, I've also interviewed more than 30 of Roe's friends, past and present colleagues, and candidates who've tangled with him in the past.

The portrait that emerges is of a sleepless, methodical operative--"machine-like," as a former client put it--who has made himself into the quintessential Svengali of our money-drenched, hyperpolarized era. You could form a support group with all the scarred and embittered candidates out there, Democrats and Republicans alike, who've ended up on the wrong side of Jeff Roe. "He's the best of the worst," said one Kansas City Republican who was beaten by a Roe client. "The guy's a scoundrel--and probably worse," said a Democrat who ended up on the wrong side of Roe. "Be careful," said another Democrat when I told her I was writing about Roe. "He's dangerous. Call your mom. Tell her you love her." [...]

In February 2015, nearly a year after Cruz had hired him, he produced a radio ad attacking a Republican primary candidate for Missouri governor named Tom Schweich. Roe was an adviser and friend of Schweich's main GOP rival, Catherine Hanaway. The radio ad--which aired only a handful of times in the lead-up to the GOP's annual Lincoln Days celebration--mocked the physical appearance of Schweich, who suffered from Crohn's disease which kept his weight around 140 pounds, comparing him to Barney Fife, the bumbling deputy on The Andy Griffith Show, and painting him as a weakling. If Schweich were nominated for governor, the spot vowed, Democrats would "squash him like the little bug that he is." 

Even before the ad aired, Schweich had been fighting a war inside his own head. He believed that the chairman of the Missouri Republican Party had spread false rumors that he was Jewish (Schweich was Episcopalian, though he had a Jewish grandfather). Schweich wanted to out the chair as a liar and a bigot, but his closest friends advised against it, leaving Schweich feeling personally and politically isolated. (John Hancock, the chairman, told me he may have mistakenly said Schweich was Jewish, but doesn't specifically recall doing so.) A few days after the ad ran, Schweich fatally shot himself in the head. The spot had been formally sponsored by a group called Citizens for Fairness in Missouri, but after Schweich's death, Roe told a local reporter he had produced and paid for it as a response to Schweich's attacks on Hanaway.

Roe was vilified. In his eulogy for Schweich, who he'd mentored, former U.S. Senator John Danforth, a friend of Schweich's and the closest thing to political royalty in Missouri, railed against Roe's attacks without mentioning him by name. "Words do hurt," Danforth said. "Words can kill." Roe told me that Schweich's death was "awful" and a "terrible situation." He added, "My heart aches for his family, his close family, extended family." But he expressed no regrets. "That's not the way I live," Roe said. "I live in the windshield, I don't live in the rearview mirror."

On the Cruz campaign, the first glimpse of Roe's negative tactics surfaced in mid-January, when Cruz ripped Trump for his "New York values." But while Roe's infamous "San Francisco style values" attacks destroyed Kay Barnes in 2008, "New York values" did not go down so well. (Roe declined to comment on his role in "New York values.")

It was an attack that could play well in the heartland, but it drew immediate wrath in New York. "Drop Dead, Ted," the New York's Daily News declared on its cover, accompanying the headline with a picture of the Statue of Liberty flipping the bird. The attack not only led to uncomfortable questions from the media and at least one academic about the implied anti-Semitism of singling out New York for scorn, it opened the door for a genuinely moving response from Trump, at the January 14 Republican debate, about how New Yorkers responded to September 11. In the aftermath, even Cruz's own allies questioned his campaign's judgment. "It would have been better on the part of Ted Cruz not to have had that exchange" with Trump, said Representative Steve King, a key Cruz surrogate, on CNN.

However "New York values" plays out down the line, it certainly sounded like pure Jeff Roe. And the deeper into the race Cruz goes, the greater the need for Roe's negative tactics may be. What might Roe have in store for Trump, Rubio, or Hillary Clinton? And will it help Cruz, or blow up in his face?

Posted by at January 21, 2016 11:26 AM