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.

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Posted by at 04:00 | Posted in Measure 37 | 7 Comments |Email This Post Email This Post |Print This Post Print This Post
  • Bill Sizemore

    Well said. A number of normally conservative groups have lined up behind Dudley and soon enough they are going to have egg all over their faces. They bought into the star power theory you effectively debunked and went for “Republican lite” over the more conservative choices on the ballot, just like they did with Ron Saxton.

    If Chris Dudley were to win, I am afraid he would spend taxpayer money about as effectively as he has spent his campaign money, which frankly sets a new standard for wastefulness.

  • Moot Meat

    Alas, Oregon’s state of affairs seems so blue from DNC waterboarding, even GA peach pit and Green Party goer, Cynthia McKinney, could fly in on her broom and sweep away a GOP ‘gov’ nominee.

    In other words, Gordon Smith, purported RINO, may the only GOP hopeful capable of drawing sufficient votes from the PERSimoniously Oregonized side of the aisle – and ‘let’ to dwell in Mahonia Hall.

    ~ Oh say can you see what’s happening in the unionized public sector?

  • valley p

    Sorry to do this to you Brendan, but this is the most thoughtful, insightful analysis I have ever read on Catalyst. You have clearly chosen the wrong venue.

    Dudley, or any Republican, can get 35-40% of the vote. Because its likely to be an anti-party in power year, any Republican other than Bill Sizemore (no offense meant) can probably get to 45%. What Oregon Republicans ought to be asking yourselves, but never seem to, is how did it come to this? How is it you have 4 candidates for Governor, none of whom shows the experience or ability to actually govern even if they were to be elected? Oregon is not that Democratic of a state, or at least never was in the not too distant past. George Bush nearly won here. We had a Republican majority legislature all through the 1990s. Gordon Smith was a reasonably popular Senator. Somewhere down the road your party lost contact with the middle of the electorate. Dudley at least policy and tone wise appears to be in the middle, but that is about all you can say for him.

    You need some soul searching son or Oregon will become Vermont or Rhode Island. No Republicans need apply.

    • Brendan

      Thank you Bill, thank you Valley P. As voters & partisans, I think we need the best general election debate we can muster. Candidly, Chris Dudley seems like a very nice man, I just don’t know if he’ll draw the contrasts necessary to slow down the inevitability argument Kitzhaber is likely to sell to the press this fall. Any GOP candidate needs to draw convincing contrasts in the hopes of overcoming the registration disadvantage they will be facing in East Multnomah & North Clackamas Counties. I could be wrong. A Clyde Drexler by Dudley’s side in North Portland & Gateway could bring him enough votes to put him over the top, but I think he’ll need more than this. If Chris Dudley is the nominee, I think he’ll improve as a candidate, but I think he’ll need some electoral strategy beyond just his impressive biography.

  • Jack

    Valley, Bill Sizemore is the Candidate. Go Bill

    PS Valley: Thank Bill SIZEMORE for his 1990’s Measure’s that tied up the Socialists and there Money which helped create those Republican Majority’s. Now lets get bill in as GOVERNOR.

    • valley p

      “Bill Sizemore is the Candidate. Go Bill”

      Good luck with that. As a Democrat I’d like nothing better than for Bill to win the nomination.

      • Vigilant Earp

        Dems should be ashamed of themselves for even countenancing the PERSanoma that Bob Tiernan, Randy Miller and Bill Sizemore had warned out to Orgonians from the commoner sense watchtower.

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