Missouri Candidate's Suicide Brings Political Nastiness to National Attention

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It was clear to some who spent time around Missouri gubernatorial candidate Tom Schweich that the pressures of an increasingly nasty campaign had gotten to him in the days leading up to his suicide.

Missouri state Rep. Kevin Engler and his wife saw Schweich at a Republican rally in Kansas City, Missouri, five days before his death.While most politicians there were shaking hands and meeting the crowd, Schweich could do little more than worry, his colleague observed.

“Tom just looked stressed,” Engler told NBC News. “My wife commented that he looks like he’s under a lot of stress and obviously he was.”

As an early frontrunner in the race for the Republican party’s nomination for governor, Schweich, the Missouri state auditor, had already found himself immersed in a nasty campaign more than a year and a half before Election Day. That all came to an end two weeks ago, when authorities found the 54-year-old dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

His death brought into focus the negative nature of politics when former Sen. Jack Danforth delivered a blistering eulogy decrying the current climate of campaigning and called on both candidates and voters “to turn politics into something much better.”

“The message for the rest of us reflects my own emotion after learning of Tom’s death, which has been overwhelming anger. Politics has gone so hideously wrong, and that the death of Tom Schweich is the natural consequence of what politics has become,” Danforth, a mentor to Schweich, said at the funeral. “I believe deep in my heart that it’s now our duty, yours and mine, to turn politics into something much better than its now so miserable state.”

So far Danforth’s words seem to have done little more than entrench previous divisions within Missouri’s Republican party. Some of Schweich’s friends and allies have called for accountability for state GOP chair John Hancock, who is accused of being behind the tactics that may have pushed Schweich over the edge. Hancock announced Thursday he has no plans to resign at the same a group of GOP state legislators said he needs to be replaced for failing to institute any reforms since Schweich’s death.

“I think the only way this gets turned around is if voters begin to punish candidates whose operatives or whose campaigns engage in this,” Sen. Claire Mccaskill, D-Mo., said on “Meet The Press” Sunday.

Engler said Danforth’s eulogy has started a debate amongst state legislators over whether he crossed the line by directly linking nasty politics to Schweich’s decision to take his own life. It so far appears the father of two left no note.

"We've had partisan chapters before in our history but nothing compares to the situation today. Not even close."

“I’ve had plenty of negative ads run against me, but I’ve never thought of killing myself,” Engler said.

And even Danforth mentioned at the funeral that he advised Schweich not to run for office six years ago, saying his friend was “easily hurt and quickly offended.” (Danforth’s office said the former senator would like his eulogy to speak for itself and declined to comment for this article.)

But no matter what the reasons were behind Schweich’s decision to take his own life, political watchers say there are plenty of signs thatelections have become increasingly hostile in recent years.

The 2012 presidential race set records for both the volume of advertising and the overall negativity that hit airwaves, according to a study by the Wesleyan Media Project. Almost 65 percent of ads in the 2012 presidential race were purely negative. That is a steady increase from 2008, when 51 percent of ads were negative. In 2004, 44 percent were negative.

Outside groups were part of the reason for that increase. In 2012, 85 percent of the ads those groups produced were negative.

The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision has resulted in a sharp increase in political advertising paid for by third-party groups that are not required to disclose their donors, such as super PACs. Such groups have the ability to attack opponents without attaching a candidate or party’s name to ads, critics say.

Image:
Former U.S. Sen. John Danforth delivers the eulogy for Missouri State Auditor Tom Schweich at The Church of St. Michael and St. George in Clayton, Mo., on March 3.Robert Cohen / AP

“Citizens United has changed the scope of advertisements, and it has led to an increase in interest group ads,” said Erika Fowler, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, a group that monitors political ad spending. “And interest groups are more likely to produce negative ads.”

Republican political strategist Mark McKinnon has spent 30 years working in politics and thinks the overall climate of American politics has reached a new low.

“We've had partisan chapters before in our history but nothing compares to the situation today. Not even close,” he said. “There are a lot of contributing factors like the evolution of the Internet, talk radio, cable TV, gerrymandered districts and laws allowing special interests to spend unlimited and often undisclosed funds on campaigns.”

His group “No Labels” advocates for increased bipartisanship in Washington and decreasing the influence of outside interest groups he said “are accountable to no one.”

One of the things Danforth decried in his eulogy was a radio ad funded by an outside group that called Schweich “a little bug” and compared him to Barney Fife, the bumbling deputy sheriff in the Andy Griffith show.

Another thing Schweich was reportedly troubled by during the campaign was a negative social media campaign he accused his opponents of launching against him. Schweichmentioned what he called fraudulent accounts when he announced his candidacy for governor in late January, saying opponents had set them up to spread misinformation to his supporters.

“The evolution of technology and the internet, cable television, gerrymandering of districts, legal decisions that give more power and money to special interest groups, and many other factors contribute to the poisonous environment we have today,” said McKinnon.

But the thing friends said had the biggest impact on Schweich was an old-fashioned “whisper campaign” he perceived being targeted against him. An opponent, he believed, was inaccurately telling people he was Jewish, something he believed was meant to hamper his ability to raise money from Christian donors.

He called two reporters to his home to discuss the accusations shortly before his death.

“Some good people have said, “Well that’s just politics.” And Tom should have been less sensitive; he should have been tougher, and he should have been able to take it,” Danforth said.

“Well, that is accepting politics in its present state and that we cannot do. It amounts to blaming the victim, and it creates a new normal, where politics is only for the tough and the crude and the calloused.”

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