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On the Trail: Schweich and Swearingen size up auditor's race differently

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - If all goes according to plan, next year’s race for state auditor will feature candidates with decidedly different visions for the office.

State Auditor Tom Schweich is up for re-election next year. Because the auditor's contest is the only statewide race on the ballot in 2014, it could receive more attention than in past years.

On one end of the spectrum will be state Auditor Tom Schweich, the Republican incumbent who has prided himself on uncovering government mismanagement and taking an aggressive “law enforcement” approach to the office.

In the other corner could be state Rep. Jay Swearingen, a North Kansas City Democrat who wants to be more collaborative – rather than confrontational.

While plenty could occur between now and August, Schweich and Swearingen appear to be on a collision course. As one of two Republican statewide officials, Schweich isn’t likely to face a serious primary. And with other Democratic possibilities begging off from challenging Schweich, Swearingen says he’s up for the task to taking on the incumbent.

At stake is an office that’s become increasingly visible in recent years – and not just because it’s been used a political stepping stone. The state auditor has been in the public eye more and more, whether for its inquiries into the misdeeds of political subdivisions or for its inquiries into state agencies.

“The auditor is becoming more and more important in Missouri politics,” said Missouri State University political science professor George Connor. “Because increasingly, they’re getting sued on… fiscal notes and all that kind of stuff. And so the auditor has taken on an increased political role in the state of Missouri.”

Seeds of a challenge

During next year’s campaign, the state auditor’s contest will be the only statewide race on the ballot. It’s the first time that has occurred since 1990, when Republican Margaret Kelly easily defeated Democrat Connie Hendren.

The auditor’s race was something of a subplot in 2010, playing second fiddle to the much higher-profile U.S. Senate race between Republican Roy Blunt and Democrat Robin Carnahan. Without a U.S. Senate race on the ballot, the auditor’s contest could get more attention than in previous years.

One factor pushing Swearingen to run for auditor is how Schweich captured the office in the first place.

Schweich burst onto the electoral scene in 2010 when he defeated incumbent state Auditor Susan Montee. Schweich’s defeat of the Democratic officeholder was notable because a down-ballot statewide officeholder hadn’t been defeated in decades.

In a telephone interview, Swearingen observed that Schweich won with roughly 50.8 percent of the vote when the person at the top of the ticket – Blunt – won the U.S. Senate race that year with roughly 56 percent. (Schweich bested Montee by roughly 5 percent points, primarily because there was a Libertarian candidate on the ballot.)

"A lot of people decided to vote for Blunt and not vote for Schweich,” Swearingen said. “I remember thinking at the time ‘well good. It’s sad that Susan lost, but in four years she can come back and clean his clock. Because she’s not going to have problems beating him in four more years.’ Well two years later, she decides to run for lieutenant governor. And I’m at summer caucus and I’m like ‘we don’t have a candidate for auditor.’”

The prospect of the Democrats skipping next year’s only statewide contest, Swearingen said, was “unbelievable.”

“Of the most beatable incumbents, it’s Tom Schweich,” Swearingen said. “And so I ran some of the numbers, looked at how well (Secretary of State Jason Kander) did and saw it’s a winnable race.”

Swearingen served for 12 years in the Army and worked as an economic development official in Oklahoma and Texas. He said he’s been dismayed by how Schweich “fundamentally changed the office into more of an adversarial role.” He said that he wants to “bring it back to where it was before, to where it was working together to make government better.”

“When Susan had it and even when [Claire McCaskill] had it – even when Kit Bond had it – the auditor works for the state,” Swearingen said. “I’m a state department. And you guys are a state department. Let’s work together to figure out how we can best eliminate duplication of effort between departments. Get rid of the waste. Get rid of whatever fraud there is. But let’s do it together.”

In for the fight

From early indications, Schweich doesn’t appear to taking a “can’t we all just get along” approach to his re-election campaign.

In fact, the Clayton native said on a recent edition of the Politically Speakingpodcast that his emphasis on getting tough on government malfeasance was what caused him to beat Montee in the first place.

“I have to admit there was a wave. But I also think we ran a good campaign,” Schweich said “Auditors can sort of have an account’s approach to auditing – and we need accountants. We have 40 or 50 CPAs in the office who are great. Or we can have more of a law enforcement approach. If you look over the years, about half of our auditors have had a law enforcement background – that’s Claire McCaskill, Kit Bond, John Ashcroft. And about half have had an accounting background.

Before he won election as auditor, Schweich was an attorney at Bryan Cave. Before that, he served as served as chief of staff to three United States Ambassadors to the United Nations and as the acting assistant secretary of state at the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

“I think with all the disgust people had with government in 2010, the fact that I had a law enforcement background and was going to crack down on fraud… I think that resonated with voters,” he added. “And that’s why I won.”

Schweich went onto say that to win re-election, he would rely “on my very strong record as auditor." That includes, he said, finding 21 embezzlers, hundreds of millions of waste and conducting “completely non-partisan audits.”

He’s also touted new additions to the auditor’s office, including a grading system, a “rapid response” auditing team and following-up on audited entities that have received less-than-stellar marks.

“I think you’ve seen my grading system has fallen about evenly to Republicans and Democrats, both good and bad,” Schweich said. “I’ve been an auditor for everybody.”

Money in the bank

For better or for worse, money is a crucial element of any statewide campaign. And at this early point in time, Schweich has a fundamental advantage.

Schweich latest campaign fundraising report shows him with $505,000 of cash on hand. And as the Beacon reported earlier, his campaign is planning an all-star fundraiser this month with some of the state party’s heaviest hitters.

By comparison, Swearingen has only $18,000 cash on hand – and will clearly have to raise more if he wants to increase his name recognition throughout the state.

Financial advantage or not, Schweich said he is taking nothing for granted – noting that he’s been keeping a brisk schedule in every corner of the state. He noted that he’s won support from all factions of the Missouri Republican party – including “St. Louis County moderates” and “Tea Party” conservatives.

“I’ve been going all around the state the past few months and will continue to do that, sometimes six or seven cities a week,” Schweich said. “I don’t take anything for granted. I think I’ve got a great record. I think I’ve enjoyed bipartisan support. But I’ve got to prove to the people that I deserve to be re-elected."

Although Schweich is considered a possible candidate for governor in 2016, he's emphasized to Republicans not to look past next year's election.He's noted that the GOP has important contests next year, including state legislative contests and contest for St. Louis County executive.

"My approach to public service has always been exactly the same: Put your head down. Work really hard. Do a good job. And then see what opportunities arise," Schweich said. "Right now I have a job. It’s Missouri state auditor. I think the office is running very well. I think you’ll see in my re-election effort the accomplishments we’ve been able to make. I’m focused on that job and the re-election to that job."

Connor said that Schweich “has been somewhat critical of the rabble-rousing crazy people in the party," adding that "I don’t know if he’s going to have that much oomph for any other races.” But he also questioned whether a Democrat would have a chance to oust Schweich.

Schweich might be at an advantage because the office itself can provoke a positive reaction – regardless of the circumstance.   

“The nice thing about the auditor is he gets good press no matter where he goes,” Connor said. “He says, ‘there’s financial malfeasance here, we have to fix it’ – and he gets good press. Or he says ‘everything looks great’ – and they say ‘well, thank you for coming.’ So I think it’s tough to beat an incumbent auditor.”

While acknowledging he won’t “be able to out-fundraise him,” Swearingen said he’ll have the financial resources to compete. And he noted that neither party would have a get-out-the-vote drive spurred on by a bigger race.

“The Democrats, unfortunately, don’t have a statewide 'get out the vote' machine that’s ready to go. That generally happens when there’s a very well-funded Senate race or a very well-funded governor’s race,” Swearingen said. “The good news is, neither do the Republicans. This is true for them as well. They have to turn out the entirety of the state. I have to turn out Kansas City, St. Louis and a couple of other pockets.”

“I think there’s some opportunity to explain how the office should run, how it used to run and how it’s running now – and put it back on track,” he added.

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.