Celebrity factor often works against candidates like Dudley

By Brendan Price
Yamhill activist,

Some Oregon Republicans see a 6’11″ savior standing at the end of 26 years of Democratic Party dominance of gubernatorial elections. Chris Dudley, the former Portland Trailblazer, New York Knick, and New Jersey Net center entered the race for the Republican nomination for Governor last December with much fanfare and impressive initial fundraising success. Since then Chris Dudley has been doing his best to convince Republican’s that his Basketball career makes him the strongest candidate to take on John Kitzhaber this fall. All Politicians make statements in the hope of selling you a compelling story. The problem I have with this story is that some Republican’s are not questioning its bold central thesis. Frankly, the narrative everybody seems to be trusting in seldom comes true.

Many in the party saw somebody who voters in Portland knew, who could run as an “outsider,” and who could appeal to non-traditional political constituencies like African Americans. The combination of all of these traits, so the argument goes, would be enough to put him over the top in a statewide election. None of this should come as a surprise. Both parties and their consultants look for people who already have valuable name identification with voters and who are already viewed favorably. But, does the Chris Dudley name ID even exist? Dudley asserts that he in fact has it. Some writers have printed Dudley’s claim in their columns. But, to me, Chris Dudley’s no Kevin Duckworth.

So, does the Dudley “name ID equals electoral strength” narrative hold up? Does it buttress his claim that he is the most electable standard bearer Republican’s have for the fall? I started looking around for other recent examples of athletes running for major office and I found that existing parallels were not encouraging.

The political landscape is littered with candidates running on name familiarity and their popularity as athletes. The most recent example is Lynn Swann, the Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steeler wide receiver who won party backing for his run for Pennsylvania Governor in 2006. Swann, a first-time candidate, was expected to dominate Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania while cutting deep into the African-American community across the state. In the end, he garnered a meager 40% of the vote and lost in a landslide which affected the outcomes of close state legislative races.

It turns out voters can separate their adulation for sports stars from the experience they demand of those managing their government.

Two of the most oft-cited examples of celebrity-politician “success stories” are Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Let’s put the obvious on the table up front: both had action figure dolls and did battle on the big screen. Their “star” status was cemented, certainly more than a 16-year journeyman, back-up center. But, let’s look at them anyway since they serve as precautionary tales for those seeking a quick path to power.

Ventura rode an off-beat, independent, grassroots wave to victory in 1998. What most people forget, however, is that his victory came with a vote total below 39%. 48% could win statewide in Oregon this year, but 39% is going to give you a one-way ticket back to the private sector. As an independent, there was no part of the Minnesota government that owed their allegiance to him and, once the novelty of a professional wrestler as Governor wore off, he was done.

Schwarzenegger’s success is well-documented. Riding similar voter anger in California, Arnold’s political ascendency could not have been better timed. Schwarzenegger spent some time trying to drive change, but a lack of operational organization and message became obstacles. Eventually, he simply rolled over and gave Democrats and public employee unions whatever they wanted. The resulting explosion in state government spending put California in an untenable position when the recession hit — unemployment over 10%; budget hole over $40 billion. Total Recall, indeed.

As for other athletes turned politicians, there are certainly success stories. But, interestingly enough, they’re almost all in the congressional arena where they don’t have to demonstrate executive leadership as a pre-requisite. Steve Largent, JC Watts, Jim Bunning, and Heath Schuler are just a few who were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in districts that matched their politics and where their name ID blocked out opposition.

It’s hard to find a compelling parallel to confirm the theory Chris Dudley is choosing to sell to Republican voters. Is there an example of when an athlete or celebrity, without prior campaign or legislative experience, decided to run for Governor and won? Schwarzenegger and Ventura simply aren’t credible, historical comparisons.

Other differences to take note of between Dudley and similar electoral examples are independent money, free publicity and name I.D. An athlete, turned movie star, turned politician can count on these three important things to be there in a statewide or congressional race. This will likely not materialize in the case of a Chris Dudley general election candidacy. I don’t see Dudley’s campaign netting free media coverage in the same way Arnold and The Body candidacies pulled in. Being in the movies provides a much richer base of donors than Dudley can expect coming into November as simply a former athlete.