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From Schwarzenegger to Oz, GOP celebrities in politics

Both parties run celebrities, but the GOP seems to have an edge

Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., and Herschel Walker watch from the sidelines during the Congressional Football Game at Gallaudet University in Washington in 2017. Walker is running for Senate in Georgia.
Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., and Herschel Walker watch from the sidelines during the Congressional Football Game at Gallaudet University in Washington in 2017. Walker is running for Senate in Georgia. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — There is plenty of buzz these days about celebrities running for political office — and about former President Donald Trump’s affinity for athletes and entertainers. 

Of the 24 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients awarded by Trump between 2017 and 2021, 14 — a clear majority — were athletes or coaches. One, Elvis Presley, was an entertainer.

Trump has already endorsed former football star Herschel Walker in the 2022 Georgia Senate race against Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, even though Walker, a Republican, has plenty of personal baggage to lug around. 

The former president has not yet made an endorsement in the Pennsylvania Senate race, but that hasn’t stopped “celebrity surgeon and television personality” Mehmet Oz from entering the contest. Oz faces a crowed field in a primary that includes David McCormick, the CEO of a large investment management firm who has deep pockets and a long list of endorsements. 

But while it appears that there are more celebrity candidates these days, and the political success of real estate investor-turned-celebrity Trump has encouraged more nonpoliticians to run for office, both parties have been nominating and electing entertainers, athletes and “personalities” to Congress and statewide office for years. Ronald Reagan is perhaps the most obvious example.

The problem for Democrats is that relatively few of their celebrities have been elected.

“American Idol” singer Clay Aiken lost a bid for the House in North Carolina, while Melissa Gilbert (“Little House on the Prairie”) made an unsuccessful run in Michigan and Ralph Waite (“The Waltons”) lost bids for Congress in California. Aiken is running for Congress again this year.

Actress Nancy Kulp (“The Beverly Hillbillies”) lost her race for Congress from Pennsylvania, while “Sex and the City” actress Cynthia Nixon (currently starring in HBO’s “The Gilded Age”) failed in her bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in New York. 

Jerry Springer lost bids for the Democratic nomination for an Ohio congressional district and the Democratic nomination for governor, though those happened before he became a television “personality.”

The handful of Democratic successes that come to mind immediately include basketball star-turned-New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley; comedian Al Franken, who was elected to the Senate from Minnesota; “Dukes of Hazzard” actor-turned-Rep. Ben Jones of Georgia; and Helen Gahagan Douglas, an actress (and wife of actor Melvyn Douglas) who served three terms in the House, from 1945-51.

While Republicans have ranted over the years about Hollywood, Jane Fonda and the coastal elites’ alleged contempt for Middle America, the GOP has had its own fascination with celebrities.

Actors George Murphy and Fred Thompson were elected to the Senate from California and Tennessee, respectively, while bodybuilder-actor Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California. Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning of Kentucky served in both the House and the Senate, while Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell served three terms in the House from North Carolina.

Entertainer Sonny Bono, actor Fred Grandy and NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver Steve Largent all were elected to the House (from California, Iowa and Oklahoma, respectively), as was former football star Jack Kemp (from New York). Former Wisconsin GOP Rep. Sean Duffy first gained attention as a reality TV “star” on “The Real World: Boston.”

Not every GOP celebrity won. Child actress Shirley Temple Black ran for Congress in a 1967 California special open primary, but she failed to advance to the special election. Former football star and television commentator Lynn Swann lost a bid for governor of Pennsylvania in 2006, while former New York Yankees infielder Bobby Richardson narrowly lost his bid for Congress in 1976.

In 2000, Nebraska voters sent former University of Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne to the House. But six years later, his bid for the gubernatorial nomination in the Cornhusker State fell short.

In 2020, Alabama voters sent former football coach Tommy Tuberville to the Senate. Tuberville, who had never before run for office, defeated former Sen. and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions rather easily in the GOP runoff after the former Mississippi, Auburn, Texas Tech and Cincinnati coach was endorsed by Trump.

Professional “wrestler” Jesse Ventura, of course, was elected governor in Minnesota as a third-party candidate. 

(Yes, I’ve left out a few football players and other athletes, like Democrat Heath Schuler and Republican Jon Runyan. I’ve probably missed an entertainer or two. My list is not meant to be exhaustive.)

No experience necessary

Part of the appeal of “celebrity candidates” is that they begin with at least some name recognition But each case is different. Pennsylvania hopeful Oz is relatively well known nationally because of his television show; Georgia hopeful Walker’s name identification in Georgia, where he won a Heisman Trophy as a standout at the University of Georgia, is sky high.

Both kinds of name ID can be useful — in reaching out to contributors nationally or in beginning a race with high favorable ratings in a district or state.

Many celebrities also have experience dealing with the media and talking with average Americans, and their lack of political experience can be an asset since they have no voting record to defend and no responsibility for the state of the nation. 

Every cycle seems to bring with it more celebrities, folks with some name identification but little political experience. In fact, entertainers and athletes have been running for years — and most of them have been Republicans.

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