The Celeb-Reality-Political Complex

For years, celebrities have been attracted to the halls of Congress and governors' mansions.

For years, celebrities have been attracted to the halls of Congress and governors' mansions. Bill Bradley used the stardom he gained as an NBA player to run for the Senate. Jack Kemp went from a pro football All Star to Congress and then to a vice presidential nomination. Former pro wrestler Jesse Ventura captured the Minnesota governorship. With the ubiquity of pols on television and the entertainment qualities of cable news, the line between celebrity and politician is becoming less distinct. From Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-Calif.), to Hall of Fame pitcher-turned-Senator Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), to former NBA star and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson (D), to comedian Al Franken (D-Minn.), there are more than a few celebrities who have made the jump into politics recently. Now, former WWE CEO Linda McMahon, who got the full New York Times treatment on Monday, is seeking to join their ranks by entering the crowded field of Republicans looking to unseat Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd (D). McMahon, who has endured several body slams that are now on YouTube, appears to be seeking to keep her background in the wrestling industry from becoming a major issue in her campaign, which she is funding with her personal fortune. For nearly every celeb that successfully made the jump to politics, there are countless high profile candidates who lost. Nascar king Richard Petty got smoked in his 1996 run for North Carolina secretary of state. Long before that, country music legend Roy Acuff lost two bids for Tennessee governor in 1944 and 1948. Republican Actor Fred Thompson's presidential campaign that never got off the ground is further testimony that celebrity status doesn't necessarily translate into votes. John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster who worked for former NFL quarterback Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) during his first run for Congress, said that ultimately celebrities have to adopt a different mindset when they run for Congress. "Running for office is not like Hollywood or professional sports," said Democratic pollster John Anzalone, who worked for former NFL quarterback Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) when he ran for congress. "It's an incredibly humbling business. You have to take a lot. You have to put up with people telling you what they think and you catering to them. They won't cater to you like when you're a celebrity and everyone caters to you."Politics asked consultants what candidates who are best known for their lives outside politics should do to successfully make the transition. Their answers varied some but most agreed on a central point: Don't let your celebrity become the main story of the race. "You want to prove that you used your celebrity status as a springboard into politics but that you're not still dependent on it," said David Kralik, a California Republican consultant with Engage. "You don't want your celebrity status to end up becoming an issue in the race." The perception that the candidate lacks substance and credibility on issues is the biggest pitfall facing high profile candidates, said consultants who have worked on celebrities' campaigns. Franken's campaign last year is probably the best example of how to avoid this trap. The former Saturday Night Live writer and cast member focused on substance to make sure he was taken seriously. Similarly, several consultants noted that Schwarzenegger focused on the issues right out the gate. Republican consultant Jim Innocenzi said that celebrity is a "double edged sword" for candidates. On the one hand, it provides instant name recognition. On the other, it can keep a candidate from getting taken seriously. "Celebrity candidates have to jump over a threshold of, 'Is this a joke?'" Innocenzi said. "You have to become credible on policy." A high profile candidate may be able to effectively capitalize on his or her background if it fits the political atmosphere. Michael Bloomberg, for example, was able to use - and continues to use - his business success to give him credibility on the economic issues in the midst of a recession. Similarly, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman is likely to play up her business bonafides in her bid for California governor, as will former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina if she decides to run for the Senate. While most consultants warned that a candidates celebrity should to remain a secondary issue, there is one notable exception: Jesse Ventura's campaign for governor. John Birrenbach, Ventura's consultant, said the campaign fully embraced Ventura's pro-wrestling past and drew upon his persona as a radio talk show host. "We didn't take any steps to avoid anything," Birrenbach said. "We wanted to go on the track that Jesse's not a regular politician. He's going to tell you what he thinks, not necessarily what you want to hear."Jeremy P. Jacobs is the staff writer at Politics. He can be reached at

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