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The Ad Man: John Thompson

May 12, 2005
By: Ben Welsh
State Capital Bureau

John Thompson

The Ad Man

Bekki Cook lost the race for lieutenant governor last November in Missouri's narrowest contest, falling to then-state Sen. Peter Kinder by only half a percentage point.

And Cook thinks she knows why.

After saving up all fall, Kinder's campaign unleashed a blitz of advertisements in the final week before the election. The barrage included one heavily run radio spot featuring a blistering critique of Cook's liberal stance on stem-cell research set to ominous music.

"It was obvious they were going to do whatever they could to convince people I was horrible," said Cook, who thinks the last-minute put put her opponent over the top. "I knew what they were going to do. They had to."

Kinder disputes any claims that ads alone decided the races but is quick to tout his campaign's ad-buying approach. Responsible, he says, is a man whose name is unknown to most voters; a man he credits not only for his drive to victory but for the entire Republican takeover at the statehouse.

"John Thompson," Kinder said.

Operating out of Marshfield, Thompson runs a political consultancy firm that works for conservative causes. While he didn't personally design the attacks on Cook, he played a big role in what Kinder describes as his "strategic kitchen cabinet."

While neither a mover nor shaker in the legislative process, Thompson is a favorite of Republicans up and down the ticket. You don't have look far in the GOP-controlled Capitol to find someone who thanks Thompson for his or her seat.

"The man is brilliant. He's absolutely brilliant," said Rick Hardy, an MU professor of political science and former Republican candidate. "If you want to run a really good campaign, you want to talk to John Thompson."

After starting out as a radio reporter in Springfield, Thompson went to work for Roy Blunt -- then Springfield's county clerk and a frequent source -- steering his successful 1984 campaign for secretary of state.

It was the beginning of a new career. After leading the push for term limits in 1992, Thompson helped introduce voters to a crop of Republican candidates that sprouted up to capture the General Assembly as the old guard faded. In 2004, Thompson claimed what might eventually be regarded as his crowning achievement when he helped put Matt Blunt, the son of his first boss, into the governor's office.

"He has a feel for the conservative issues defined as pro-life, pro-gun, pro-marriage, that whole complex of social conservative issues, married to an economic approach that is low tax," said Kinder, who as president of the Senate teamed with Thompson to build the GOP majority.

"Efficiency in buying," is what did it, Kinder said. "Lots of campaigns spend a lot of money but they don't do it very efficiently. [Thompson knows] it's as important to work smart as it is to work hard."

His summary echoes the conventional wisdom that Republicans nationwide have rallied voters to their cause by having PR-savvy people like Thompson push hard on hot-button social issues.

Thompson, however, disagrees.

"People want to oversimplify all this," he said. "This was all about abortion or all about guns or all about something. That's just not the way that is. Most voters are looking at a series of points."

Democrats who've been on the losing end feel different.

"Republicanism has been redefined in recent years. They just got and they demonize the other side and they go on," Cook said.

Despite enthusiastic praise from his candidates, Thompson is reluctant to take much credit for himself. He gives all praise to his clients and says he's nothing like the image many people have formed of political consultants from the cynical characters in films and on television.

"Sleazeball, I've met some of that," Thompson said. "I only work for clients who I honestly believe are trying to make the world a better place to live. Life is too short. I've got children. I'd like the world to be a better place for them.

"But I haven't worked for the perfect candidate yet. There hasn't been one of those for a couple thousand years."