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Prominent Republicans, including Danforth, call on Schweich to run for U.S. Senate

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 8, 2012 - Retired U.S. Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo., is leading a list of prominent Missouri Republicans who have sent a letter calling on state Auditor Tom Schweich to jump into the Republican contest for the U.S. Senate.

The letter goes public after months of behind-the-scenes talk that some prominent state Republicans weren't happy with the current crop of Republican candidates vying to challenge U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

The three current contenders are: St. Louis businessman John Brunner,  former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman and U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Wildwood.

But Danforth said in an interview that his encouragement of Schweich was based on the auditor's strengths and talents and had nothing to do with the other Republican contenders. Schweich has worked for and with Danforth in various capacities over the past 20 years.

"Due to the current circumstances, we urge you to reconsider your intention to serve your full term as Missouri state auditor and run for the U.S. Senate," the letter begins. "This will not be an easy decision because you take your commitments seriously. However, we strongly believe that during these trying times, serving the national interest trumps anything you have said regarding serving out your term as auditor."

Other signers include Harbour Group founder Sam Fox (also one of the national GOP's top donors), former Ambassador (and Bush relative) George H. Walker III, TAMKO executive David Humphreys and former state GOP chairman Tom Fowler.

(Click here to read the entire letter.)

Danforth said he spoke to Schweich on Wednesday, and at that time, the auditor had yet to receive or see the letter.

Danforth said that Schweich "has a rare capability to focus on big issues to present them with great clarity."

Danforth has promoted Schweich for the U.S. Senate before. In 2010, Danforth had initially promoted Schweich for the seat vacated by retiring Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo.  Some party leaders backed then-U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt instead, and Schweich chose to run for state auditor.

At the time, Schweich told reporters that if he was elected, he would serve out his full term as auditor and would not use it as a springboard to another office.

But in recent weeks, Schweich has declined to comment when asked repeatedly by reporters if he’s considering a 2012 bid for the U.S. Senate.

Actions by an ally may communicate more than the auditor’s silence. On Tuesday, Schweich’s campaign treasurer for his 2010 auditor bid, Joseph S. Passanise, filed papers with the Internal Revenue Service to form a “527” campaign organization to support Schweich for the U.S. Senate.

The filing, which was first reported by Bloomberg News, spurred the buzz about Schweich. He has until March 27, when candidate-filing ends, to make his decision.

A consultant close to Passanise said the aim was to use the committee as a standard candidate campaign committee, should Schweich run, and not to use it to form an independent campaign committee, also known as a Super PAC. The same IRS form is used to register both types of campaign committees.

The open letter signed by Danforth and others doesn't mention the current GOP hopefuls by name. Rather, it cites Schweich's previous work in Washington.

"In the upcoming election, Sen. McCaskill will rightly be seen as a rubber stamp for President (Barack) Obama," the letter says. "If you run, it will be a campaign fought on principles, not personalities, and you will defeat Sen. McCaskill. She has shown time and time again that she is too liberal for Missouri."

McCaskill long has been nationally targeted by many conservative groups, 527s and so-called “Super PACs.” She already has been the subject of several attack ads from such independent groups, as well as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

A new TV ad was launched Thursday by Crossroads GPS, an independent "527" with ties to former Bush adviser Karl Rove. That ad attacks McCaskill's votes for the federal health-care law and curbing tax breaks for wealthier Americans, especially those who make $1 million or more a year.

A “527’’ group, named for a provision of the IRS code, is not bound by the contribution limits for congressional and presidential candidates. However, such a group must operate independently of the favored candidate and cannot coordinate activities. Super PACs are similar.

Schweich promised '527' help

Some prominent Republicans have privately promised Schweich or his allies that they would donate to a 527 if he would jump into the U.S. Senate contest.  Otherwise, Schweich would be at a financial disadvantage.

Schweich's latest state campaign report showed him with about $43,000 in the bank -- but that money cannot be used for a U.S. Senate bid because of different fundraising rules and restrictions.

McCaskill’s latest Senate campaign report showed that she already has raised more than $5 million, with close to that amount still in the bank. Akin has raised closed to $1.5 million, and Steelman close to $1 million.

Brunner has reported raising close to $1.3 million, but virtually all of it has been his own money. Brunner also has said he’s prepared to pour in even more. For that reason, there have been rumors that his rivals – notably, Steelman – may be seeking help from a Super PAC.

Steelman recently acquired state House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, as her new campaign chairman – an apparent bid to tap into Tilley’s well-demonstrated fundraising skills.  He had raised close to $1.3 million for his  bid for lieutenant governor before dropping out because of family issues.

On the down side, Schweich’s entry would add another St. Louis area candidate to the mix – leaving Steelman as the only one from outstate and possibly giving her an edge if Schweich, Akin and Brunner split the St. Louis area vote.

Perhaps to counter the letter, Akin on Thursday rolled out the endorsements of 11 members of the Missouri General Assembly from the St. Louis area, including state Sen. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay, one of the state Senate's most outspoken conservatives.

Danforth said in the interview that the renewed focus by prominent Republicans on Missouri's U.S. Senate contest reflects, in part, concern that Republican chances of defeating Obama, a Democrat, have declined substantially.

The question then becomes, said Danforth, "are we going to re-elect (Obama) and arm him with majorities in Congress, or do we elect a 'counterbalance' " by gaining control of the U.S. Senate and retaining control of the U.S. House.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.