President Trump is reshaping the Republican Party into his own image, according to admirers and critics alike. More economic populism, less free trade and immigration; out with global democracy promotion and in with “America First.”
As year one of the Trump presidency comes to a close, however, the most obvious impact isn’t ideological or policy-oriented. In Trump’s GOP, fame and notoriety are assets to aspiring politicians as the party’s grassroots loses patience with its governing class. The below candidates and near-candidates have their differences with Trump and each other, but all of them are easier to see as future Republican contenders after his nomination and election.
Hollywood may be dominated by Democrats, with elite entertainers performing at liberal events and filling progressive coffers. But it is Republicans who have been most willing to give their celebrities a second act as political activists (Ted Nugent, Charlton Heston, Patricia Heaton, James Woods) and even as elected officials (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sonny Bono, Fred Thompson, George Murphy, and, of course, Ronald Reagan).
Kid Rock stood out even in this crowd. Although an outspoken Republican, he did not undergo any extended transition period from celebrity to politics as Reagan and, to a lesser extent, Schwarzenegger did. He didn’t set his sights on a small-town mayor’s office like Clint Eastwood. The often-vulgar rock ‘n’ roller set off a wave of speculation that he would run next year for the U.S. Senate from Michigan, vaulting from pop culture, fame and fortune straight into campaigning at a high level — just like Trump.
National Republicans didn’t exactly discourage Kid Rock, whose real name is Robert James Ritchie. "We'd be actually very interested in his candidacy," said Steven Law, president of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund, earlier in 2017. Law later added, “]"So if you're watching, Kid, we hope you run."
The reason was simple: Ritchie’s name ID (at least as Kid Rock) was sky-high and he could replicate what Trump did in earned media in 2016. No conventional Republican was favored in that state, which Trump narrowly carried over Hillary Clinton. Maybe Kid Rock could catch lightning in a bottle and pull off the upset. If not, Republicans would be no worse for the wear. Democrats would probably at least have to spend some resources in a blue state at a time when they are playing defense in ten Trump states with senators up for re-election.
Even Kid Rock’s flirtation with a run against incumbent Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow complicated matters for more established Republicans, like veteran Congressman Fred Upton, who opted not to run. One Republican operative told the Washington Examiner Upton “would have been the Jeb Bush of the primary.”
Despite his on-stage rants about Black Lives Matter and other social issues, Kid Rock’s quasi-candidacy always had the feel of a lark. When radio shock jock Howard Stern, who once frequently hosted Trump on his show, pinned the singer down about whether he was really going to run, the answer was simple: “Fuck no.”
When one of Trump’s least favorite GOP senators, Tennessee’s Bob Corker, announced he wasn’t running for re-election another famous name immediately popped up: former Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. Manning, a college football star at the University of Tennessee, has golfed with the president. He is a Republican donor, one of only two NFL players to max out for Mitt Romney in 2012 (the other was wide receiver Wes Welker).
Republicans immediately talked up the possibility. "If he were to run nobody in their right mind would consider running against him," Corker told Politico. "Peyton Manning is the kind of guy that would be great in public office. ... I think it's possible,” though he quickly added it was unlikely. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., went a step further, saying that Manning may be “looking” at a Senate bid, though he thought Sen. Lamar Alexander’s seat was a more probable target than Corker’s.
Manning performed best in a Gravis poll taken this month testing various Republican candidates against former Gov. Phil Bredesen, widely viewed as the Democrats’ strongest candidate. The quarterback edged Bredesen 44 percent to 39 percent while other big-name Republicans trailed.
Yet Manning has so far insisted publicly that he has no interest in running. During his playing career, he emerged as a well-liked television pitchman for products ranging from insurance to pizza. This has served him well in retirement. Entering politics would necessarily mean alienating at least half of the fan base he has acquired over 20 years. He can also see the negatives for the celebrity sitting in the Oval Office right now: Before entering politics, Trump was mostly known for glitz, glamour and business sense, a Robin Leach-style “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” image. Now he is associated with low-brow right-wing politics. Ivanka Trump has tried to protect her father’s pre-political brand without much success.
Does Manning want the HGH storyline back in the news? Or to face questions from social conservatives about exactly what kind of stem cells were used in treating his troubled neck? Better to stay out of politics, he might conclude.
The Republican who lost a special election for Senate in Alabama (though he hasn’t acknowledged it yet) isn’t a celebrity in anywhere near the same sense as the first two entries on this list. But the “Ten Commandments judge” has been a notorious figure of sorts for over two decades, becoming a national lighting rod as he was not once but twice kicked off Alabama’s state supreme court.
In the primary, Moore likely benefited also from the other candidate’s notoriety: the perception that appointed incumbent Sen. Luther Strange got his seat from a corrupt governor he was investigating. But both the primary and the general election became a way for some Alabama conservatives to rebel against Washington and the national media the way Moore rebelled against the federal judiciary. Even — perhaps especially — after women came forward accusing him of sexual misconduct, voting for Moore was a way to stick it to Mitch McConnell, the Republican establishment, the national Democratic Party, ambulance-chasing Gloria Allred, the Washington Post and any number of other liberal journalists sneering at Southern evangelicals.
It was good enough in the runoff against Strange. It wasn’t in the Dec. 12 general election against Democrat Doug Jones, though the Moore camp remains adamant voter fraud was the difference maker in his 1.8-point loss.
Trump supported Strange in the primary and, as he reminded us afterward, predicted Moore would be weaker head-to-head against the Democrats. He could have washed his hands of his party’s senatorial nominee. Instead he intervened to try to save Moore in the waning days of the campaign. Why not? Trump had himself persevered in the face of sexual misconduct allegations, the “Access Hollywood” tape, elite Republican abandonment and relentlessly negative media coverage to prevail in an election. In that sense, Moore was a Republican candidate for the Trump era.
The former sheriff of Maricopa County is similar to Moore in that he was a controversial Republican elected official long before Trump entered the political scene. He has also resisted the edicts of the federal courts, to his own legal detriment. And he has seen his act grow stale with his own voters.
Nevertheless, Sheriff Joe was one of the first big-name immigration hawks to throw his weight behind Trump in the Republican primaries. Trump repaid the favor by making Arpaio the first recipient of a presidential pardon under his administration. Now it is possible the octogenarian Arpaio will run for the Arizona Senate seat being vacated by Never Trump Republican Jeff Flake next year.
"My heart is with the president and anything he needs or wants I will do,” Arpaio told the Washington Examiner earlier this year. “So we'll have to see what his position is. It's an open seat now." He said he relayed this message to Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist and booster of insurgent candidates everywhere. If Arpaio takes a pass on the race, Kelli Ward, the state senator who tried unsuccessfully to primary John McCain in 2016, might fit the Bannonite bill.
The Wisconsin businessman lost a Breitbart-hyped Republican primary race against House Speaker Paul Ryan by 70 points. Like many Trump imitators, he was able to run on a nationalist platform without replicating the president’s political talents. This has generally resulted in defeat. Even Trump ultimately endorsed Ryan in this particular race.
Now Nehlen is back again. Since then, he has traveled in a more extreme — many say bigoted — direction. Whether this further diminishes him as an insurgent candidate and political gadfly or gives him a new, more Richard Spencer-like avenue of influence remains to be seen.
Trump can’t be blamed for Nehlen’s flirtations with the alt-right. Breitbart has distanced itself. But Nehlen grabbed the “MAGA” megaphone long before engaging in his current extracurricular activities and could cause persistent headaches for the very people who put him on the map in the first place.