For weeks, the labels have hung over Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign like dirty laundry: Deceitful. Cynical. Willing to do anything to win.
The attacks from Cruz’s Republican rivals have challenged his core campaign promises of integrity and conservative purity, cresting Monday when he dismissed his communications director, Rick Tyler, for spreading a misleading video about Marco Rubio’s views on the Bible.
“There is a culture in the Cruz campaign, from top to bottom,” a Rubio spokesman said, “that no lie is too big and no trick too dirty.”
The episode threatened to tarnish Cruz’s brand. But not his campaign manager’s.
As Cruz has elbowed into the top tier of candidates, his campaign has conspicuously reflected the brand of its principal architect: Jeff Roe, an operative with a reputation for scorching earth, stretching truths and winning elections.
“When you win campaigns,” Cruz said last month of the man he hired, “the people that lose tend to be unhappy about it.”
Roe’s home state, Missouri, teems with people who were made unhappy by him.
At 45, with lumbering swagger and drawling parables culled from the family farm, Roe has steered Cruz’s onetime long-shot presidential bid into contention.
Roe’s message has been consistent: Cruz is the most conservative candidate. His turnout operation is perhaps without peer. He all but guaranteed victory in Iowa, boasting to disbelieving reporters that they would be wasting their time to prepare articles on a Cruz loss.
It was Roe who hired Tyler to be the Texas senator’s campaign spokesman. (In an interview this month, Tyler said he had “learned a lot” from Roe. “Jeff wins,” Tyler said, adding, “I don’t think anything we’ve done is underhanded or deceptive or anything like that.”)
But back home, Roe’s allies and opponents alike have seen a familiar imprint in the Cruz campaign’s recent exploits, which have included a Photoshopped image of Rubio and the misleading suggestion, on the night of the Iowa caucuses, that Ben Carson was leaving the race.
There was the time, in 2006, when Roe ran an ad flashing “XXX” to highlight a 63-year-old, wheelchair-using congressional candidate’s former employer’s association with Penthouse magazine. Roe’s candidate won.
Long before Cruz tweaked Donald Trump’s “New York values,” Roe condemned the “San Francisco-style values” of another opponent in a 2008 ad featuring an ostentatiously dressed black man dancing with two women. Some criticized the spot as racist and homophobic. Roe’s candidate won.
He was among the first local operatives to tail opponents with camera-wielding trackers and, a decade ago, to investigate the social media pages of candidates and their children.
He has been known to quote Gandhi and ran a blog that trafficked in sometimes-sourced political gossip.
“Jeff Roe does not know the difference between fact and fiction,” said Joe Brazil, a county councilman in Missouri who unsuccessfully sued Roe for defamation after a 2006 blog post days before Brazil’s primary in a state Senate race.
The item focused on a sad event from Brazil’s youth, when, at 17, he killed a classmate in a dump-truck accident. Roe’s post suggested Brazil had consumed “quite a few beers.” But Brazil had not been drinking, the police said, and was not charged.
After watching coverage of the Iowa caucuses from his home in Augusta, Mo., Brazil said he tried to reach the Carson campaign, hoping to offer a history lesson.
“How could they be surprised?” he asked.
In interviews, Roe’s clients and current colleagues vigorously defended his ethics. He has helped elect or re-elect 41 members of Congress, six senators and five governors. Surely, supporters say, hurt feelings are to be expected.
“Jeff Roe likes to win,” said Rep. Martha E. McSally of Arizona, who won her seat in 2014 by 167 votes.
“Jeff is very intimidating, and he kind of likes that,” said Rod Jetton, the former Missouri House speaker.
“Sometimes he makes people a little bit squeamish,” said Rep. Sam Graves of Missouri, Roe’s mentor. “It is what it is.”
Cruz’s first experience with Roe came during his Senate run in Texas in 2012. Roe’s firm, working for Cruz’s opponent, produced a flier attacking Cruz’s legal work for a Chinese company. It made an impression, though Cruz won.
Roe, who declined to be interviewed, was quick to establish a distinctive culture at Cruz’s headquarters in Houston. Top aides were required to move there. (Roe brought along his wife, Missy, the 2010 winner of the Mrs. Missouri United States pageant; their baby, Remington, named in part for the gun-maker; and Missy Roe’s parents.)
Meetings begin when he sounds a siren on a bullhorn. They last 10 to 12 minutes, largely because the participants stand. And Roe family wisdom is often heard:
“Get the corn down where the chickens can eat it.”
“If you have a bunch of frogs to eat, eat the biggest one first.”
“When it’s raining soup, put a bowl on your head.”
Though Jeff Roe and Cruz share a conservative vision, there are differences between the candidate and his message maker.
Cruz is a practitioner of the filibuster; Roe is pithy and profane.
Cruz was an Ivy League debate champion; Roe worked on his family’s hog farm before joining the National Guard at 17, training with howitzers.
Cruz tracks his daily exercise habits on a Fitbit; Roe is built like a baseball umpire, which was once his dream job, and he chews Red Man Golden Blend tobacco, holstering a plastic soda bottle as a spittoon.
Roe started in politics in 1994, working on Graves’ election to the state Senate. But umpiring remained a passion. He practiced calling third strikes in the office, using a flourish he called “the chain saw.” He was once heckled at a high school game by Hall of Famer Whitey Herzog, whose grandson was pitching.
In 1996, he was invited to major league umpiring school. He declined, reluctantly.
“In the back of his mind, he still wonders, would I have made a great umpire?” Graves said.
When Graves reached Congress, Roe became his chief of staff, occasionally earning the ire of the Bush White House. At one administration briefing for the Missouri delegation around 2002, Roe took issue with an agricultural proposal.
“That’s just bad politics,” he said.
A voice behind Roe objected. Roe pressed on, according to several people who recalled the scene, without bothering to face the man.
“That’s just completely out of touch without the reality of Missouri politics,” he repeated.
He was talking to Karl Rove.
In 2005, Roe left Washington to start a political consulting firm in Missouri. His first presidential work was for Mike Huckabee in 2008; in 2012, he consulted for Rick Perry.
As Roe prepared to manage his first presidential bid for Cruz last February, he faced new scrutiny at home. Days after he ran a radio ad mocking the physical appearance of Tom Schweich, a primary candidate for Missouri governor, by comparing him to Barney Fife, Schweich committed suicide.
Peers said Schweich had faced many demons; he also thought the chairman of the state’s Republican Party had falsely spread word that he was Jewish. But some Missouri leaders viewed the ad as a last straw, casting Roe as the avatar of a toxic campaign culture.
“Politics has gone so hideously wrong,” John C. Danforth, the state’s former three-term U.S. senator, said as he eulogized Schweich.
Roe has expressed condolences to Schweich’s family and horror at the death, but he betrayed little regret for the ad itself.
“I live in the windshield,” he told The New Republic. “I don’t live in the rearview mirror.”
Such has been his response through the years, more or less, to questions of whether his tactics were fair or foul.
Still, colleagues and even opponents have said Roe is capable of introspection, of inspiring loyalty and, among competitors, of engendering respect.
Jetton, the former Missouri House speaker, said he had long since lost touch with Roe, a friend-turned-adversary, when Jetton was arrested and charged with assault in 2009, eventually pleading guilty and being placed on probation; in 2010, he faced a grand jury investigation over questions of bribery, though he was not indicted.
Out of the blue, Jetton received a text from Roe. “He said, ‘Hey, politics is one thing, but this kind of stuff, you don’t wish for anybody,’” Jetton recalled. “I don’t know that I would have done that for him.”