Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Could Kid Rock Actually Win?

Kid Rock (R-MI, apparently)
In the past week, one of the most popular topics of conversation amongst the political chattering class has been the "is he actually running?" Senate campaign of Kid Rock in Michigan.  The singer, whose real name is Robbie Richie, has launched a website against three-term incumbent US Senator Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat whom Chuck Schumer will surely need to win reelection if he has any hope of taking a Senate majority in 2018 or 2020.  Some have even gone so far as to say Richie would be the "prohibitive favorite" in the primary or the general, a shocking statement but in light of Donald Trump's recent victory one that sends shivers down the spines of Democratic pundits across the country.  A (dubious) poll even shows Richie leading Stabenow by four points, but any poll that has a three-term US Senator that has no scandals suddenly with 44% undecided is absurd (there's no way in hell that Debbie Stabenow is only getting 26% in Michigan short of her wearing a Packers jersey to a Lions game).  But the question is-who is right?  Is Richie a political force to be reckoned with, or is Stabenow lucking out by having him in the race?  The answer, like most of politics, lies somewhere in the middle, but I want to make three points about this potential contest before things get absurd and every Z-Grade celebrity is suddenly heralded as the next Donald Trump.

1. Yes, Kid Rock Could Win

I think any Democrat who laughs and cheers with Richie now in the race (if he is in the race-no one can entirely tell for sure if this is legitimate or just a ploy to sell merchandise) clearly was in a coma for the past two years.  It's obvious now that Donald Trump was a force that no one in the Republican Primary could acknowledge was as big as he was, and that Hillary Clinton shouldn't have hoped to run against (in reality, Clinton probably would have stood the best chance against the initial frontrunner Jeb Bush, as they were so similar in terms of background, which is what the race became about, even though they diverge greatly on politics).  Trump proved that a mountain of opposition research, dozens of political missteps, and a tenuous grasp on public policy all are not a problem if you have no shame, are willing to demonize your opponent in cruel and typically out-of-bounds ways, and throw red meat at your base while your party is fearful of defying you.  That's a lesson that Richie could learn and duplicate, and one I suspect more-and-more candidates will give a try in the coming years until it backfires horribly in a winnable race (even longtime politicians like Mo Brooks seem to be employing it).

Richie could conceivably tap into the angst against Washington by claiming to be a man-of-the-people (that grew up rich and is now a millionaire, but that clearly wasn't an issue for Trump), and calling Stabenow a career politician, which considering she's now served in Congress for twenty years isn't an entirely unfair attack, and is a good line even if it might be a stupid one (that's an argument for another day).  Richie won't hurt his personal brand by degrading the senator on the stump, and he can rest confident in knowing that Stabenow is too classy to stoop to some of the attacks he'll be comfortable leveling, making the argument that she doesn't "relate" to the common people all that much easier to bloom.  He can retreat to the world of popular music after this run with little impact to his career (where mistakes are quickly forgiven) and it's not like he's burning up the Billboard charts right now-this might actually help his singing career.  All of this is to say-take him seriously.  This is a state Trump won (marginally, but still), and Stabenow shouldn't take anything for granted, even against a man whom it's preposterous to think of succeeding the likes of Stephen Douglas and Henry Clay.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI)
2. Trump Can't Just Be Duplicated

That being said, it has to also be acknowledged that Donald Trump's success cannot just be "duplicated."  If this were the case, every celebrity in the midst of a career down swing would be in Congress right now.  Yes, you can point to Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Al Franken, and admittedly the threshold for celebrity candidates continues to be broken, but also on that list were Norman Mailer, Shirley Temple, and Linda McMahon.  Fame is a foot-in-the-door, not a magical key.

Let's examine, of course, that Richie isn't running across the country, and that Stabenow now will have a bogeyman that Hillary Clinton did-Donald Trump himself.  Stabenow will be able to use Trump to scare off tenuous voters who might want to vote for Richie to "send a message" or as a bit of a lark since it won't matter anyway.  The closeness of the presidential election in 2016 (Michigan would know, they were the closest state Trump won), shows that nightmare scenarios do occasionally play out, and Stabenow can use that a cudgel.  It's quite possible that had people actually thought Trump could win, he might not have.  I haven't seen polling on this (I don't know how you'd poll it), but multiple interviews held after the election indicated a similar sort of "Brexit" moment where people had instant regret for not voting or for swinging to the winning side of the fence.  Michigan, a blue state that hadn't gone for a Republican for years, would be the first to shift if people had this reaction.  Additionally, let's not forget that Stabenow is a three-term senator-she knows what it takes to win, and knows how to run a hard campaign (she defeated incumbents to win both her House and Senate seats, a task very few members of Congress can boast).  More importantly, she knows how to win in Michigan, a state that is still very competitive on a national scale.  Richie can use Trump's playbook, and might find some success in it, but it's hardly a foolproof method to victory.

3. National Environment (and Candidates) Matter More Than On-Paper

Lost in this discussion, with some sides wanting to proclaim "told you so" much more quickly and others cowering in fear, is that Stabenow's reelection will almost assuredly be more about the national environment than about anything Richie can bring to the race.  Midterm electorates are reflective of the national mood, and people's opinions of President Trump.

If President Trump's approval ratings don't recover, for starters, it's difficult to see Kid Rock being able to use his friendship with the president to his advantage, particularly if Trump's unpopularity starts to affect bread-and-butter issues like healthcare and the economy.  In a state where manufacturing in particular is central to so many people's incomes, a downturn in the economy will be felt more heavily, and Stabenow will easily be able to tie the downturn to Trump.  Additionally, Richie could be the wrong messenger at the wrong time if incompetence on the behalf of the Trump administration starts to become a campaign issue, or the Midterms become a referendum on Trump.

It's also worth noting that Richie may not relate to voters in the same way as Trump.  Part of Trump's message with voters was that he could use his business acumen to help save communities that struggled under the previous administration.  That's not something that Richie will be able to rely upon.  Trump has also been tangentially around major political players in the country, and it's not clear that Richie'll be able to fundraise (or want to donate as much money) as Stabenow, who is surely raking in cash right now from fearful Democrats (I know I donated).  Jesse Ventura may have allowed for Arnold Schwarzenegger, but it's worth noting that both of these men were followed in office by career politicians who had long reputations in their states, and both who enjoyed considerably more popularity as a result, while they themselves were ridiculed toward the end of their careers for being incapable of handling their state's problems.  Al Franken is really the only recent celebrity/politician who has sustained, perhaps because he's the only celebrity politician who made major efforts to assimilate into the Senate, trying to blend in rather than rely on that celebrity (it wasn't until recently that Franken made public efforts to be humorous, and even then he's more serious in interviews than you'd find from a regular politician).  More often than not, celebrities running for public office go the way of a Clay Aiken or a Norman Mailer, someone who can attract a lot of headlines and not a lot of votes.  Pulling a move from Trump's playbook isn't going to be enough for Richie, especially if the environment is bad and the president's popularity continues to sour.  Richie may end up having Trump to thank for his election results next year, but it might not be a thanks of gratitude when all is said and done.

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