Celebrities in politics are not a new phenomenon. Athletes and actors particularly seemed drawn to the spectacle of the affairs of state. Bill Bradley and Tom McMillen prepped for Congress in the National Basketball Association, Jim Bunning was known as a major league pitcher before Kentucky sent him to the Senate, and Steve Largent and J.C. Watts groomed Oklahoma voters to love them on the gridiron and not at the Gridiron dinner.
In California, Hollywood has produced in the past half-century a mayor (Clint Eastwood), a U.N. ambassador (Shirley Temple), a House member (Sonny Bono), a senator (George Murphy) and a couple of governors, including the current chief executive in Sacramento – and another who became a two-term president. But if starring in "Bedtime for Bonzo" and "The Terminator" seemed like scant preparation for high public office, we hadn't seen anything yet. The 21st
century's dubious contribution is nothing less than reality television stars running for political office.
Many Americans were first introduced to the now ubiquitous reality format when MTV's "The Real World" first aired in 1992. Eighteen years later, the show now holds the distinction of being MTV's longest-running program. It may soon hold another claim to fame If Republican Sean Duffy has his way: It would be the first reality television show to launch the career of a future member of the United States Congress.
Duffy is running for office in Wisconsin's 7th Congressional District, which stretches from the central to the northern counties of the Badger state. It is, to many Hollywood elites and Washington insiders, the very epitome of "fly-over country" -- or what Republicans tend to consider, in George Allen's memorable phrase, "the real world." Under normal circumstances, 37-year-old Duffy wouldn't have much of a chance -- not when the incumbent is the powerful Democratic chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. David Obey, a liberal icon who has been representing Wisconsin's 7th since 1970 -- before Duffy was born. But in the post-Scott Brown world, conservatives are allowing themselves to think that in 2010, virtually anything is possible.
Duffy is the district attorney for Ashland County, where he has been elected four times. He's also a lumberjack and a three-time 90-foot speed climb champion, an accomplished log-roller and ESPN commentator. He's also the telegenic father of five with a pregnant wife at home. Duffy and his wife, Rachel Campos-Duffy, are both "Real World" alums. He appeared on the Boston season, while his wife (who recently appeared on my podcast
) was on the San Francisco season. The two met on an MTV show called "Road Rules," in which "Real World" stars from various seasons competed.
While Obey's party-line votes on such issues as cap-and-trade and health care may give Duffy traction with independents in the 7th
District, Duffy told me that the incumbent's biggest problem is simply that he's not there very often. "He's absent," Duffy said. "He comes through three or four times a year. He lives in Washington, D.C. He's never here. His meetings aren't publicized."
By contrast, Duffy said he "crisscrosses the district multiple times a week."
Will that matter? Well, Obey defeated a well-financed (but not as well financed as Obey) Republican challenger by more than 20 percentage points two years ago in a district Barack Obama carried comfortably over John McCain. Nonetheless, Wisconsin's 7th
might not be as deep Democratic blue as one might think. In 2004, John Kerry bested George W. Bush by only about 5,000 votes out of 365,000 cast. That's what makes Republicans think they have a chance. One reason Democrats aren't too worried is Obey's ability to raise money at will. According to the last Federal Election Commission reports, as of Dec. 31, Obey had $1.1 million in the bank; Duffy had only $220,000.
But since that Dec. 31 financial filing deadline, Duffy's campaign has caught fire. Time magazine listed him as one of "10 more Scott Browns
." Then, Duffy received endorsements from two prominent conservatives: Sarah Palin and RedState editor-in-chief Erick Erickson. The respected Cook Political Report made ratings changes in 25 House races, and Obey's seat was one of them. Obey is now considered to be vulnerable
In a posting on her Facebook page
, Sarah Palin promoted a fundraiser
for Duffy, writing: "On this first anniversary of the stimulus, let's send a message to the big-spenders in Washington by helping Sean Duffy unseat the author of the stimulus. Let's put government back on our side and get to work revitalizing America!"
And just as Scott Brown was able to win the style battle against Martha Coakley, there is little doubt Duffy's rugged good looks and youthful, attractive young family help him. As Erickson said in his e-mail to me: "Whether you look at it as past verses future or young versus old, there is a generational gap between a guy who had a private-sector job before becoming a district attorney and a guy who has never not lived off the taxpayer teat. It's time for Obey to learn what the ash heap of history feels like."
Ronald Reagan once joked that he didn't know how someone could be president without
having been an actor. In that spirit, perhaps MTV's "The Real World" is an appropriate, if unique, training ground for modern-day politicians after all.
The show deals with hot-button issues (Jon Brennan disagreed with Tami Roman's decision to have an abortion), race (Kimberly Alexander got into an argument with Brianna Taylor, who is African-American, and said, "Let's not get ghetto"), illness (Pedro Zamora struggled with AIDS), and, of course, sex. It also forces young people to confront people with opposing views, all the while doing so while walking the high wire of public scrutiny.
This season, which is "The Real World's" 23rd
, is, for the first time, set in Washington. Sean Duffy hopes to meet the cast members there – this time, on his own terms.