Not too long ago on NBC’s “Morning Joe,” commentator Chuck Todd shared a tidbit about what “multiple very high-level Democrats on the Hill” thought of Al Franken:
“They are scared of Franken winning,” he said. “More importantly, they fear that if Franken wins, then every liberal Hollywood type is going to say, ‘Hey, I can run for office too.’ And they are going to get a rush of these.’ ”
Todd’s insight surely would be challenged in industry circles, but he speaks to a long-existing disparity in the Hollywood-D.C. axis: While showbiz is dominated by Democrats, it’s the Republicans who have been most able to translate their partisan stripes into actual governance.
There’s no clear-cut reason.
The list of Republicans includes Ronald Reagan, George Murphy, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Fred Grandy and, in a brief term as mayor of Carmel, Calif., Clint Eastwood.
The list of Democrats? Well, there’s Ben Jones, who played Cooter on “Dukes of Hazzard” and later served two terms in Congress from Georgia. More recently, John Hall, lead singer of the band Orleans, responsible for “Still the One,” won a New York congressional seat and is running for re-election this year.
In the 1990s, Ralph Waite, aka Pa Walton on “The Waltons,” ran as a Democrat in the Palm Springs area and lost both times. Republican Sonny Bono ran for Congress in the same area — and won.
Franken, who has been even or ahead in recent polls in his Senate race in Minnesota against incumbent Norm Coleman, would be somewhat of a breakthrough: an entertainment figure from Hollywood’s progressive wing who makes it to high office.
He’s also one of the few figures who have been approached to run for office and then actually did it. Through the years, just about any performer who gets close to elective politics naturally gets asked whether they have any interest in taking the plunge. Rumors fly, only to be shot down. There was speculation in 1999 that Warren Beatty would wage a presidential run as an independent, but other than using the attention to highlight some signature issues, he never got in the race.
A more recent rumor had Jon Bon Jovi, who is frequently on the trail with Democratic candidates, running for governor of New Jersey. Bon Jovi’s publicist denies any such prospect.
So why the disparity?
Donna Bojarsky, a political consultant who specializes in working with high-profile entertainment figures, concludes that it may simply be “idiosyncratic.” Waite’s losses, for instance, probably had more to do with his campaign war chest and the Republican-skewing district than his public persona.
But there’s also the issue of opportunity: Many stars live in Democratic-skewing areas where open seats just don’t come up very often. Rep. Henry Waxman, for example, has represented industry-heavy areas like Beverly Hills, Malibu and Santa Monica since 1975, but he isn’t going anywhere.
The lack of open positions usually forces the politically ambitious on both sides of the aisle to seek opportunities in the heartland, as Franken did in returning to his home state.
In such cases, it’s hard to say whether Hollywood fame helps or hurts. In 2004, Nick Clooney, a TV newsman, AMC host and father of George Clooney, ran for a northern Kentucky congressional seat in an area where he has lived most of his life. His opponent, Republican Geoff Davis, quickly branded the race “Heartland vs. Hollywood.” Davis won.
Clooney, who now teaches journalism at American U in Washington, cites other factors for his loss but says he regrets not running a response ad that said, ‘Gee, I didn’t know he was from Hollywood.'”
It may just come down to who performs better as an average Joe, to put it in this year’s favorite campaign speak. Fred Thompson was a high-powered lawyer and character actor when he ran for Senate in 1994 in Tennessee, but his race seemed to take off when he added the common touch of traveling in a beat-up old red pickup truck. His opponent called it a “rented stage prop,” to no avail.
More often than not, the Hollywood connection is held against star politicians who are Democrats, but not Republicans: Running against Schwarzenegger in 2006, Phil Angelides cast himself as “a leader, not an actor.” The argument was a non-starter.
“The liberal Hollywoodites have become targets and the conservative Hollywoodites have become candidates, and I have no idea why,” says Clooney, who notes that the showbiz label didn’t hurt Reagan, either.
Clooney doubts whether a Franken win would signal a rush of liberal stars to the steps of the Capitol.
“Certain elements of the world of arts are always going to be on the cutting edge, they are always going to be ahead of the curve on what American public life is willing to accept,” Clooney says. “It makes conservative people, somewhere between Nevada and North Carolina, nervous. They are willing to accept them later on, but it takes a long time.”