One factor working in Republicans’ favor: pro athletes. Actors, singers, and reality-TV personalities have their charms, but, politically speaking, sports stars outperform them all. “They don’t have a lot of baggage, and their brand cuts across the political divide,” said West.
Traditionally, notes West, Republicans have done well recruiting athletes because of the tax issue. “The thing about pro athletes is, they come into big money at a very early age, and they are always shocked at how much of their paycheck goes to incomes taxes,” said West. “For a lot of these people, that is the motivating issue. It really aggravates them, and it pushes them toward the Republican Party.”
More broadly, GOP celebrities benefit from the party’s anti-establishment bent. Celebrity candidates often paint themselves as the refreshing, uncorrupted alternative to self-serving political elites. (Again: Trump.) This screw-the-establishment message has been a GOP mainstay for years, giving Republican candidates without political experience a boost not shared by their Democratic counterparts. It’s worth noting that the anti-establishment revolutionary to take the Democratic Party by storm last cycle was Bernie Sanders, a sitting senator who has been in electoral politics since God was a boy.
Dems also have to contend with Republicans’ attacking them more generally as the party of out-of-touch Hollywood and coastal elites. (Recall the 2008 McCain campaign’s sneering characterization of Barack Obama himself as a “celebrity.”) This makes it easy for the GOP to mock or stereotype whatever celebrities run on the Democratic line. When Republicans have a famous name of their own on the ballot, however, they don’t waste time fretting about hypocrisy. Nor should they, suggested West: “People always belittle celebrities and say they don’t know very much. Yet, if you look at the track record, many celebrities have been very successful candidates.”
Obviously, not all stars are created equal. Some have more mainstream appeal than others. (Cam Newton: scads. Charlie Sheen: not so much.) Until recently, Trump was regarded as Exhibit A in the ludicrous category. But he clearly grasped some of the vitals, including how to work the media and how to connect with regular folks. “It’s how you talk, not where you sit,” stressed West. “You need to be able to relate to the average person. That’s one of the most important ingredients in the current situation. You can’t come across as snotty or unapproachable.”
This, of course, is always a core challenge for Democrats. They fancy themselves the party of expertise and experience and good governance, none of which leaves much room for unconventional, or even relatable, candidates.
But you know what they say about desperate times—and the bulk of Democrats are growing increasingly desperate in the Trump Era. Political norms have been upended, and the rules of engagement are being rewritten.
At the very least, it may be time for Democrats to start exploring what it would take for The Rock to switch parties.
* This article originally identified Heath Shuler as a member of the GOP. We regret the error.