Six years ago, Jeff Thompson was the local Republican Party’s fair-haired boy. A relative unknown, Thompson claimed a seat in the Idaho House of Representatives by knocking off incumbent Jerry Shively, the first Democrat to win a Bonneville County legislative race in three decades.
Thompson defeated Shively in a 2010 rematch. In 2012, Thompson thumped Trimelda Concepcion McDaniels in the GOP primary, earning 86.8 percent of the vote.
Last month, however, Thompson squeaked by Steve Yates, earning just 51.1 percent in a 108-vote GOP primary victory.
With no opponent in the General Election, Thompson will head to Boise in January to begin a fourth two-year term. But he must be scratching his head, wondering “How did I go from fair-haired boy to near oblivion in two short years?”
Here’s how, Jeff:
n Quality opposition
McDaniels was unknown, underfunded and forced to combat not only the incumbent but also the political establishment supporting him.
Yates presented a much stiffer challenge. A former adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, as well as a FOX News contributor, Yates knows how to swim in political waters. Support from former legislators Ann Rydalch, Janice McGeachin and Erik Simpson, not to mention the Grande dame of the local Republican Party, Sheila Olsen, gave Yates instant credibility.
n New district
Thompson cut his teeth in the moderate Idaho Falls city district. Redistricting moved him into a more conservative suburban district. Voters were willing to consider Yates, who challenged Thompson from the right.
Thompson is the consummate politician. He shows up at events, presses flesh and kisses babies. He’s also been a rumored candidate for nearly every statewide and local office that may or may not be coming open: mayor of Idaho Falls, county commissioner, lieutenant governor, superintendent of public instruction, secretary of state and treasurer.
In this small city, rumors take on a life of their own. Once voters start hearing an elected official is seeking greener pastures, they begin to question the wisdom of keeping him in his job.
n Bad news
Leading into the May 20 primary, Thompson experienced a nearly unprecedented run of bad headlines.
House Speaker Scott Bedke instructed him to cut down on travel.
Budget Committee Co-chairwoman Maxine Bell chastised him for choosing a Mitt Romney fundraiser over presenting the public school budget.
And several people said they were not endorsing Thompson, despite being listed as supporters on his website.
Local tea partiers say Thompson led them to believe he would oppose the state insurance exchange. He voted for it. So, while other exchange supporters, including Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis and Rep. Wendy Horman, did not earn the enmity of the right, Thompson became public enemy No. 1. Yates’ campaign finance report shows $500 donations from Bonneville County GOP Chairman Doyle Beck and his wife, Lynn.
n Dirty tricks
Nearing Election Day, voters in District 30 received mail from Thompson saying this: “Steve Yates on the Mark Richardson Show: ‘I have no problem raising Idaho taxes.’”
Yates did not say that. In fact, he said nothing even resembling that during his nearly 17-minute appearance on Richardson’s show.
Also, as May 20 approached, a group called Citizens for Fairness began running pro-Thompson radio ads. Citizens for Fairness appear to have broken campaign finance laws by not registering with the Secretary of State’s office. This week, Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said the group could face a complaint filed by the Attorney General’s office.
n Boise’s boy
Thompson received $11,780 in campaign contributions from May 5 to May 30. Of that, $400 came from individuals in his district. The rest was donated by fellow legislators and political action committees. Many were motivated to help Thompson because he likely would support Bedke should he face a challenge for his speakership in December.
Thompson is viewed as vulnerable and his reputation — in Boise and here at home — has taken a hit. Two years, however, is a long time. The stunning drop in support from 2012 to 2014 guarantees nothing as we look ahead to 2016.
Thompson has work to do and bridges to repair. This could be the beginning of the end — or Thompson may reclaim his fair-haired boy status.
Either way, it will be a fascinating journey to watch.