John Brabender is creative.
It’s the word used by clients, co-workers and even rivals in the close-knit and highly competitive world of political ad-making to describe Rick Santorum’s ad man and messaging guru. But, unlike his client, Brabender isn’t “at war with Satan.” Rather, as Brabender told The Daily Beast, he’s just trying to “move numbers.”
The product of a Catholic family from Erie, Pa., that was heavily involved in Democratic politics, Brabender joined his first campaign in 1982, when Republican Tom Ridge, an alumnus of the same Catholic high school and then the assistant district attorney in Erie County, approached him about working on his congressional bid doing direct mail. Brabender, then in his 20s and just getting started in the advertising business, said he was relatively apolitical—he “just wanted to have a business and pay bills.” As he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2000 about his early career, he “didn’t care if [a client] were Democrat or Republican. They could have been communists, just as long as they were able to pay the bills.”
Ridge, who moved on to become governor of Pennsylvania and later the first secretary of homeland security, pulled out a narrow win in that race—and Brabender was hooked on politics. “I had fallen prey to the seduction of political campaigns,” he wrote in a 2008 piece, “It Takes a Masochist to Live My Life,” “and despite the sadistic extreme highs and lows, it’s an addiction I still have today. And on many levels, it is a regret I will always have.”
Whatever his regrets, the campaign also established Brabender as a campaign comer and as a Republican, albeit not a zealot, as his former business partner John Verbanac put it. In 2000, Brabender admitted to “on occasion, voting for a Democrat.” Asked about the quote, he says he “doesn’t remember saying that … I root for my clients.”
He says he’s been motivated by his personal connection with his clients—many of whom like Mario Lemieux, owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Santorum, he considers friends. Among the other political clients he mentions as friends are David Vitter, the Louisiana senator embroiled in a 2007 prostitution scandal with whom Brabender has “been with all his ups and downs, been with him, counseling him,” and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, with whom he has a friendship going back to the 1980s.
If Brabender has an agenda, it’s less ideological than a visceral distaste for bad political ads.
Like almost all consultants, he’s worked on races in a purely professional capacity, but his relationship with Santorum, dating back to Santorum’s first successful underdog run in 1990 has become personal. Brabender is the godfather of Santorum’s daughter Sarah Maria. “Brabender has enormous respect for Rick,” said Salena Zito, a columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, told The Daily Beast. “One of his first clients, and they sort of grew up together. I have never seen John having that relationship with anyone else that he’s worked for.”
Brabender describes his role “in Santorum world” as “transcending what a media consultant does, because I’ve been there so long. I’m not just a pure media consultant.” Instead, he has “a lot more capabilities, authority, responsibilities and so forth.” He knows “what’s going with fundraising, grassroots [and the] digital world” and leads the daily conference call every morning with the campaign’s communications team.
Despite that role for the candidate now leading the Republican field in the national polls, Brabender has stayed below the national radar, in part he says because he is not an “inside the Beltway figure.” Says Zito, “you ask half the reporters, people [don’t] even know what he looks like.”
“The shorthand is John’s a genius as it relates to political consulting,” says Verbanac, and “it’s just now being realized. The fact that he’s simply being discovered at the level that he is now because of Rick’s performance.”
He added that he’s “never known John to bring his personal beliefs into work product, John keeps those for himself. I don’t find him to be a zealot.”
The trademark of both Brabender’s ads and his personality is his sense of humor, which he harnesses in creating his advertising. Client (and ardent Gingrich supporter) former congressman Bob Walker praised his “very strong sense of humor. He can create very amusing ads that make a tremendous point.” An example of this is the “Rombo” ad that went up in Michigan two weeks ago, featuring a Mitt Romney lookalike with a paintball gun full of mud, running around a warehouse trying and failing to shoot cardboard cutouts of Rick Santorum, until finally the mud exploded back onto him. The spot was funny, clever and effective. It was also totally unusual. Brabender, who says he only trusts ads that make him “feel uncomfortable,” says he fretted during the "Rombo" filming: “maybe this is not a good idea.” It has been viewed almost half a million times on YouTube, a fact that Brabender says he finds astonishing. Considering that most Americans dislike political ads, he says, the fact that “half a million people took time out of their schedule to find it and watch it is amazing and gratifying.”
Brabender was widely praised for a 2000 ad for Santorum’s first Senate reelection campaign based on the concept of VH1’s Pop Up Video, which was then popular. The ad had no dialogue, just music and footage of Santorum’s family. The only words were in the pop-up boxes. This was highly unusual for political ads, which almost always feature narration. The ad proved successful enough that an updated version of it was aired in Iowa prior to the caucuses by Santorum’s then cash-strapped campaign. Although much of the footage was recycled, caucusgoers didn’t seem to mind.
While Brabender has stayed out of the national spotlight, his peers have taken note. Democratic consultant Steve McMahon, who has long admired Brabender’s work from afar, says the Republican has the ability “to take something which sometimes pretty complicated and reduce to its essence and do something you don’t often see in political commercials, which is deliver in a way that’s both credible and memorable.” Another prominent Democratic consultant, Tad Devine, said Brabender is “very respected among colleagues on both sides of the aisle for his creativity.”
Like Stuart Stevens, his counterpart on the Romney campaign who wrote episodes of Northern Exposure, Brabender also has an interest in show business. He’s fascinated by the intersection of politics and entertainment and started a company called Zolitics in 2009 to combine the two. So far it has only produced one show, a series of webisodes called "Moving Numbers," all of which were written by him. The show attempts to capture the chaotic life of a Republican U.S. Senate campaign in Pennsylvania, something that Brabender knows quite a bit about. However, it’s quite likely that some plot lines, such as whether that candidate’s wife appeared in a pornographic film entitled Sexy Schoolgirls Vol. 2, are fictional. Other planned shows for Zolitics included "My America," where a very liberal political figure would show "their America" to a very conservative one and vice versa. The pilot would have featured Santorum taking Donna Brazile to a NASCAR race. Brabender is still talking to distributors about similar projects, including a reality show for aspiring journalists called "Scoops."
For now, though, Hollywood is on hold as the campaign continues. Brabender still marvels how Santorum’s effort has gone from a “MacGyver campaign” to a frontrunner. But for a campaign still being massively outspent, having someone like Brabender in charge is a major asset. While a MacGyver campaign may not succeed in the end, Brabender has gotten his candidate pretty far with a lot of creativity and a bit of duct tape.