Will Missouri’s Top GOPer Lose His Job Over Candidate’s Suicide?

Missouri GOP Chair John Hancock
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March 6, 2015 6:00 a.m.

Missouri Republicans this week began to break their silence about the state GOP chairman’s alleged link to state Auditor Tom Schweich’s (R) suicide.

The floodgates opened Tuesday at Schweich’s funeral service, where former U.S. Sen. John Danforth (R-MO) implicitly rejected Missouri Republican Party Chairman John Hancock’s denials about being involved in an anti-Semitic “whisper campaign.” Schweich had told people before his death that Hancock was telling people he was Jewish, when in fact he was Episcopalian.

Schweich, who was a leading Republican gubernatorial candidate, believed that the “whisper campaign” was intended to hurt him among evangelical Christian primary voters. Hancock had previously done consulting work for Schweich’s primary opponent, Catherine Hanaway.

Three distinct camps emerged following Schweich’s funeral: those who demanded Hancock’s resignation, those who lined up in support of the party leader, and those who refused to touch such a political football — for now. But while lawmakers can make all the noise they want, it’s ultimately up to the state Republican Party committee to decide whether Hancock stays or goes.

Here’s a look at some of the state’s political heavy hitters and what they’ve said about Hancock’s future with the Missouri GOP.

DEMANDING A RESIGNATION

Schweich spokesman Spence Jackson

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The late auditor’s spokesman Spence Jackson was the first person to publicly call for Hancock’s ouster. Immediately following Schweich’s funeral service on Tuesday, Jackson told several local news outlets that the state party should not move forward with Hancock as its leader given the allegations of anti-Semitism against him.

Former state House Minority Leader David Steelman (R)

David Steelman, a prominent Missouri Republican and former state House minority leader, tweeted the day of Schweich’s funeral that the state Republican Party needed to “find its soul” through new leadership.

In an interview with USA Today, Steelman noted that Hancock was an opposition researcher and said it was “absurd” to believe Hancock didn’t already know that Schweich wasn’t Jewish.

State Rep. Paul Fitzwater (R)

State Rep. Paul Fitzwater (R), who had endorsed Schweich for governor, told the Kansas City Star on Wednesday that Hancock was “tainted” by the whisper campaign allegations.

“It’s so bad that he needs to go. That’s the feeling of the mood I get from everyone here,” Fitzwater told the newspaper, adding that a “couple dozen” other lawmakers agreed that Hancock should resign.

Former U.S. Sen. John Danforth (R-MO)

Ex-Sen. John Danforth (R-MO), who served as a mentor to Schweich, didn’t explicitly demand Hancock’s head on a platter. But his scathing eulogy at Schweich’s funeral on Tuesday telegraphed as much.

Danforth told mourners that Schweich had spoken with him about an anti-Semitic “whispering campaign” he believed was being waged against his gubernatorial campaign. He also invoked Hancock’s denial of that accusation: that he may have told someone Schweich was Jewish in the same way a person could say “I’m Presbyterian and somebody else is Catholic.”

“Tom called this anti-Semitism, and of course it was,” Danforth said. “The only reason for going around saying that someone is Jewish is to make political profit from religious bigotry.”

The former senator also branded Schweich’s death a “natural consequence of what politics has become” in Missouri and called for profound changes in the state’s campaigns.

“This will be our memorial to Tom: that politics as it now exists must end, and we will end it,” he said. “And we will get in the face of our politicians, and we will tell them that we are fed up, and that we are not going to take this anymore.”

STAYING NEUTRAL

State House Speaker Pro Tempore Denny Hoskins (R)

State Rep. Denny Hoskins (R ) said he planned to take the coming weekend to mull over the question of whether Hancock should resign, according to the Kansas City Star. The House speaker pro tempore added that several of his colleagues wanted to see Hancock step down.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO)

The state’s most prominent Republican, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), stayed above the fray Wednesday and told the Springfield, Mo. News-Leader that he’d leave the matter of state Republican Party leadership to the committee.

“The state chairman is selected by the state committee, not selected by anybody else,” Blunt told the newspaper. “I’ve been trying to focus on Tom Schweich and his family. I frankly haven’t thought about what should come next.”

But Steelman, the prominent state Republican, predicted that Blunt’s word will be the last if he chooses to throw his lot in with either the pro- or anti-Hancock camps in the coming days.

“Sen. Blunt is the most senior Republican in the state of Missouri. If he wants John Hancock to resign, John Hancock will resign,” Steelman told the News-Leader. “If John Hancock doesn’t resign, I will assume that’s because the senator does not want him to.”

Missouri Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder (R)

Missouri Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder (R), through a spokesman, took Blunt’s tack and called Hancock’s leadership “a matter for the state party,” according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. But the Kinder spokesman also said the lieutenant governor is in favor of a serious overhaul in Missouri’s politics.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Catherine Hanaway

Catherine Hanaway, a former speaker of the state House, was Schweich’s main primary opponent at the time of his death. She suspended her campaign activity after Schweich’s suicide out of respect for his family, and in that vein declined to weigh in on calls for Hancock’s resignation.

“I suspended my campaign last week out of reverence to Auditor Schweich’s family and will not add any additional commentary to further politicize this tragedy,” Hanaway said Wednesday in a statement, as quoted by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I continue to pray for the Schweich family during this difficult time.”

U.S. Rep Ann Wagner (R-MO)

A spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner (R-MO), whom local journalist Eli Yokley noted is close to both Hancock and Hanaway, declined to say whether the congresswoman feels the state party chairman should step down.

“Ann does not feel that it is appropriate for anyone to inject politics into the situation so soon after Tom Schweich’s tragic suicide,” Wagner’s chief of staff Christian Morgan told Yokley, who wrote in the Daily Beast.

DEFENDING HIS JOB

Missouri Republican Party Finance Chairman Jack Spooner

Attorney Jack Spooner penned a column for the Missouri Times that accused media outlets, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in particular, of using Schweich’s death to “advertise a private matter and to damage Republicans.”

He also vouched for Hancock’s character, writing that “before accepting the position of State Party Finance Chairman I had numerous conversations with the person mentioned to be the source of Tom’s anguish, and I can report that this person strongly supports and defends our constitution and will always fight to protect the freedoms and liberties it provides – including the freedom of religion.”

Former Missouri Democratic Party Executive Director Michael Kelley

Democrat Michael Kelly, who co-hosts a radio show with Hancock, called up the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Wednesday to offer a defense of the state GOP chairman.

“I’ve known John 20 years … and I know that John’s not an anti-Semite or a bigot,” Kelley told the newspaper. “Anyone who rushes to the conclusions that are being drawn here is not thinking about the issues that surround a person’s decision to commit suicide.”

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