With the 2006 elections barely behind us and the 2007 races coming together, let’s jump ahead to 2008. While most Kentuckians in November 2008 will be focused on the election of our 44th president, soon-to-be Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) will seek his fifth term, and only an optimist could imagine McConnell back in the majority, as Republicans defend 21 of 33 Senate seats in 2008.
Democrats would love nothing more than to retaliate against Republicans after they knocked off then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) in 2004. But finding a viable Kentuckian with the stature and fund-raising ability to effectively challenge McConnell will be a tall order.
After surviving close elections in 1984 and ’90, McConnell put together a 12-point victory in 1996, then crushed Lois Combs Weinberg (D) by 30 points in 2002.
While there’s little doubt U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler (D) or Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson (D) could provide McConnell a top-shelf challenge, there’s little evidence either is interested. More likely, Democrats will hope a lesser-known challenger captures national attention and rides the wave to victory, as we saw this month when Jim Webb (D) knocked off Sen. George Allen (R-Va).
Well … there is one other possibility: Kentucky’s very own George Clooney.
Born in Lexington and raised in Northern Kentucky (note that McConnell is from Alabama), the two-time holder of the title “Sexiest Man Alive” (1997 and 2006) would present quite an opportunity for Democrats. Clooney, 45, is no stranger to politics; he even recently testified before the United Nations Security Council about his visit to Darfur, Sudan, where genocide is destroying the population. Clooney is as articulate as he is at ease when discussing issues like Iraq, North Korea, warrantless surveillance, domestic issues and why he’s a Democrat. He was even ahead of the curve this summer by calling for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) to run for president in 2008.
While certainly a fixture of American pop culture, Clooney never fails to discuss growing up in Augusta, where he played baseball (and even tried out for the Cincinnati Reds), and in a recent Larry King Live interview, he spoke of the back-breaking work of cutting tobacco as a kid.
Clooney has never been shy about expressing interest in politics, though without fail he’s self-deprecating about why he should not run for office. In this month’s Esquire, Clooney mused that the effects of watching his father lose his 2004 race for Congress in Northern Kentucky, and the compromising nature of politics, have caused him to rethink a run. But it’s that very sort of thoughtful assessment — rather than an unabashed desire to be elected to office — that makes Clooney so appealing.
Celebrity actors running for high office is nothing new, as we’ve seen with President Ronald Reagan, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Sen. Fred Thompson, Rep. Sonny Bono and many others. Even Gopher from “The Love Boat” (Fred Grandy) served four terms in Congress.
In a race with Clooney, McConnell would likely find himself as the candidate trying to keep up with fundraising, Clooney could take his case directly to voters if McConnell, 64, refused to share the stage with the Sexiest Man Alive (as he’s often done with previous opponents). No doubt the voters would turn out, en masse, to see candidate Clooney on the campaign trail, and such a race might be the very thing needed to engage younger voters who shy away from political participation more than any other demographic.
And for a poor state like Kentucky, it’s not hard to imagine the “wow factor” of a Clooney candidacy. If you think about what the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a cool downtown baseball stadium have done for the image of Cleveland, imagine what a Sen. Clooney would do for the image (and self-image) of Kentucky.
Would Clooney have to defend some of his more unabashed liberal views, particularly on social issues? Of course. But voter behavior is much more complicated than a robotic assessment of candidates based on social issues (see John Yarmuth). Remember that an Austrian-born Republican with no political experience and a funny accent easily won two elections for governor in staunchly Democratic California.
Before Democrats offer up a second tier candidate to take on McConnell in 2008, maybe they should aim big, for once, and ask the Sexiest Man Alive to come back to his Old Kentucky Home.