Did Donald Trump dissuade or invite more celebrity political candidates? Although celebrity candidates are not a new phenomenon, we are on the verge of a bumper crop. This is another of Trump’s unlikely legacies—depending on the success of his imitators.
Ronald Reagan remains the gold standard, but two celebrities may determine which party controls the United States Senate after next year: Herschel Walker and J.D. Vance; meanwhile, Larry Elder has immediately become the X factor in the California recall.
Walker is an iconic figure, winning the Heisman Trophy as a running back at the University of Georgia before starring in the NFL. Herschel Walker, the football star, will open doors for Herschel Walker, the Senate candidate.
Incumbent Democrat Rafael Warnock won a January runoff by only 93,000 votes in a special election clouded by claims of voter fraud and Trump’s apparent ambivalence about GOP fortunes, both of which suppressed Republican turnout. But Warnock must run for the seat again next year in an off-year environment, which suggests he is vulnerable.
Walker tested the political waters with a speech during the 2020 Republican National Convention. The still chiseled and handsome 59-year-old athlete was a bright spot at the virtual convention. Next year, his fame, winning personality, and business experience should garner crossover votes. He posted a quasi-announcement with a Twitter video: revving his car's engine and proclaiming, "I'm getting ready, and we can run with the big dogs."
Walker has issues to overcome. In his autobiography, he acknowledged being diagnosed with what was formerly termed "multiple personality disorder." His divorced wife alleged he physically threatened her. Democrats will rev up their own engines to air those stories. It’s starting already.
A Best-Selling Author Can Hold Ohio for GOP
Ohio is a swing state that tilts red. Trump carried it twice, each time by a margin of eight percentage points. Though a popular Republican senator is retiring and the GOP primary field is crowded and competitive, J.D. Vance has a unique profile. He is the author of the best-selling memoir "Hillbilly Elegy," the film version of which, currently airing on Netflix, garnered an Oscar nomination for Glenn Close. Vance rose from an economically disadvantaged childhood to graduate from Yale Law School, become an Iraq War combat veteran, and co-found a venture capital firm.
He conveyed his outsider candidacy by announcing, "The old way of doing things ain't working." CNN wasted no time in proclaiming, "The knives are already out for him." CNN is sharpening some of those knives itself and Vance has already offended some Trump backers. While not leading in the polls, he’s in the mix.
Larry Elder Is a Master of the Media
The Sept. 14 recall election of California Gov. Gavin Newsom was proceeding to a likely Democratic victory with his latest 49%-42% approval-to-disapproval ratings. It was a boring campaign with less than compelling Republican candidates — until Larry Elder entered at the last minute.
The talk radio host’s skilled media presence surpasses that of athletes, entertainers and authors. He achieves the rare combination of smiling while articulating outrage at his opposition.
Newsom still holds significant advantages in deep blue California: a state budget surplus at $38-$76 billion to allocate and thus curry favor with voters; a Democratic supermajority in the legislature to tout his achievements; and a massive fundraising advantage.
Yet he may be just one more COVID nightmare or power grid failure from being recalled. If Newsom is voted out, watch Elder — he leads the other challengers in the polls and has the momentum and media savvy to increase that lead. Turnout will be key on the one-topic/two-question ballot. California’s unbearable homelessness, excessive taxes and rising crime are a formula for change. Elder is the only Republican who can prevail.
Why Celebrities Thrive
The United States has long been a personality-driven society, but never more so than now. Today, social media “influencers” earn six-figure incomes with TikTok and Instagram posts touting their favorite beverage, sneaker, or cosmetics. In a world of instant gratification, few voters take the time to study a candidate's policy platforms.
The fabric that bound voters together by occupation, religious affiliation, union membership, or political party is fraying. In California, “decline to state” voters amount to nearly a third of the electorate, inching past the percentage of registered Republicans. This independence creates a void for the outsider candidate to exploit. The fresh face often succeeds in politics and famous celebrities have the best of both worlds: a fresh slate on policy issues, but a familiar persona.
Advantages of Celebrity Candidates
I was campaign manager for two successful Los Angeles City Council campaigns. My recently published novel is a fictional account of a mega rock star’s campaign as a political independent running for the U.S. Senate in Nevada.
Like my protagonist, many celebrities are physically attractive, comfortable parrying with the media and engaging with the public. It is easier to run against something or someone, and incumbent officeholders have past voting records to attack. Celebrities may have issues in their personal closet, but they have a blank political palette.
Celebrities: A Discouraging Case Study
But there are pitfalls for celebrity candidates as well. For starters, behavior that might have once been tolerated in their previous life is now fair game — and can be viewed in a different context.
Al Franken is a classic case study. In 2008, the “Saturday Night Live” writer and on-air comic parlayed his national name recognition into a U.S. Senate seat from his home state of Minnesota. Nearly a decade later, however, a photograph surfaced of Franken pretending to touch the breasts of a sleeping female colleague during a USO tour. Franken apologized for a prank that he said was "intended to be funny," but the woman in the photo also said Franken had kissed her too aggressively during rehearsal. His fate was sealed when several other women alleged that he had groped them. Franken resigned his seat in 2018.
His example ought to give pause to anyone unwilling to have their past life rummaged through. There’s plenty of risk in an old tweet or photograph from your college years, which will be trashed by your opponent with a million-dollar ad buy.
Matthew McConaughey is teasing about a race for governor of Texas. On the surface, he is a compelling candidate. Mr. All Right, All Right, All Right has an appealing personality, is strikingly handsome, and engaging. His first event would attract international media coverage. In my novel, one observer remarked about my protagonist rock star Tyler Sloan, "You can't teach charisma." McConaughey has enough for three governors.
However, every executive position includes nitty-gritty governing, going over budgets, entertaining donors, glad-handing legislators. These aren’t the kinds of duties movie stars usually have to worry about.
California: A-List Celebs Thrive — B-Listers Often Fail
In 2003, California voters recalled Gov. Gray Davis and selected Arnold Schwarzenegger in his place. He was a gifted campaigner with a political portfolio, including previous experience in campaigns and the benefits of the Kennedy mystique through his wife, Maria Shriver.
Could it happen again? Caitlyn Jenner is barely a blip in the polls but Elder is the one to watch.
Southern California Congressman Ted Lieu mocked Jenner's lack of experience by questioning, "You know how a bill becomes a law?"
Memo to Lieu: You're right; Jenner may not have a clue. But Vance and Elder know, and while Walker and McConaughey may need to study, the question is "Does the public care?"