By Sean Cockerham, McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — At a closed-door meeting once in Boise, Idaho, a group of Republican governors quizzed actor-turned-aspiring-politico Arnold Schwarzenegger on the secret of raising money for a campaign.
Easy, he said with a laugh. Make hit movies and marry a Kennedy.
The marriage didn’t work out. But the hit movies definitely opened a door to politics that many others might find harder to pry open, if not downright locked.
Now comes Clay Aiken, a singer declaring this week he’ll run for a seat in the House of Representatives from North Carolina. If his attempt to jump from show business to politics seems a leap, note that it’s an often successful one for candidates ranging from Ronald Reagan to the guy who played “Gopher” on “The Love Boat.”
“Celebrities do surprisingly well, a number of them run for office and win,” said Darrell West, the director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “You shouldn’t underestimate them.”
Aiken, a bestselling singer launched to fame as the 2003 runner-up on the TV show “American Idol,” announced this week that he’s running as a Democrat for the congressional seat held by Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers.
It’s a conservative district. But West, author of the book “Celebrity Politics,” said celebrities bring several advantages to running for office.
“They’re well known, able to get a lot of media coverage and they are able to raise money,” he said. “And a lot of celebrities do well in relating to voters, they have experience dealing with fans.”
Among celebrities who have won political office:
—Reagan, an actor elected twice as governor of California and then twice as president.
—Sonny Bono, the singer elected mayor of Palm Springs, California, and then to Congress.
—Jack Kemp, a football star was elected to Congress and nominated by the GOP for vice president.
—Bill Bradley, the basketball star elected to the Senate.
—Clint Eastwood, the actor elected mayor of Carmel-By-The-Sea, California.
—Steve Largent, the pro football Hall of Fame player elected to Congress.
—Al Franken, the comic elected to the Senate;
—And Jesse Ventura, the pro wrestler-turned-Minnesota governor who told CNBC this week that he’s now filming a new TV show in a secret location in Mexico so drones can’t find him.
Congress is a particular target of famous people. Voters have even sent lesser known celebrities to Washington, such as actor Fred Thompson (who had also been the Republican counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee), football players Heath Shuler and J.C. Watts, Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning, Fred Grandy of “The Love Boat” and Ben Jones, who played “Cooter” on “The Dukes of Hazzard.”
Fame isn’t always a ticket to office, however.
NASCAR legend Richard Petty’s 1996 bid for North Carolina secretary of state foundered, for example. Nancy Kulp, who played Jane Hathaway on the “The Beverly Hillbillies,” lost her congressional race in Pennsylvania (it didn’t help that Buddy Ebsen, who played Jed Clampett on the show, endorsed her opponent).
“The biggest barrier is substance and getting taken seriously,” West said. “People often think they’re doing it just to get publicity and don’t know much about the issues.”
Aiken tried to blunt that line of criticism in a video this week announcing his candidacy, speaking of his time as a special education teacher and his appointment by former President George W. Bush to a commission addressing educational challenges of special needs students.
But Aiken, as an openly gay Democrat, faces challenges winning in a congressional district that in the last presidential election gave Republican Mitt Romney 58 percent of its vote, said Steven Greene, a political science professor at North Carolina State University.
Unless Ellmers makes a big mistake, Greene said, it’s tough to imagine any Democrat beating her. Aiken should at least make it closer than other Democrats, though, and he enjoyed media coverage in the state as a hometown hero before announcing he wanted to get into politics, Greene said.
“To live in North Carolina is to know who Clay Aiken is and to have received overwhelming positive messages about Clay Aiken,” Greene said.
North Carolina has voted celebrity Democrats to Congress before. Shuler, who won fame as a star quarterback for the University of Tennessee and then played briefly in the National Football League, won a House seat for two terms as a conservative Democrat.
Shuler didn’t run again in 2012 after North Carolina’s Republican-controlled Legislature redrew the congressional districts and put him in a tougher area for Democrats. That redrawing of the election map is also one of the biggest obstacles Aiken faces, said David Wasserman, an analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, and it could trump his ability to woo voters.
Aiken is still one of the most interesting candidates from either party in this year’s elections, Wasserman said.
“If a candidate as likable and as backed by as much star power as Clay Aiken cannot win this solidly Republican seat, who can?” Wasserman said.
Photo: UNICEF up close via Flickr