Last week, Ashley Judd disappointed supporters when she officially declined to run for U.S. Senate in her “home” state of Kentucky. But her reluctance to jump into what would have been a very tough race won’t preclude other celebrities from considering running for office. In fact, it seems that celebrities are flirting with the idea more and more these days.
This trend is partly due to the general convergence of Washington and Hollywood. The last two Democratic presidents have built strong and lasting relationships with Hollywood, and there have been ample opportunities for collaboration. Whether it is George Clooney or Ben Affleck testifying before Congress about international human rights crises (Sudan and the Congo, respectively) or Bradley Cooper meeting with Joe Biden about mental health reform, you can’t even open up a Politico or Roll Call these days without seeing news of another actor coming to Capitol Hill to bolster their image and use their celebrity to promote their pet causes. Oh, and sometimes the train runs in the opposite direction: two of Obama’s speechwriters, Jon Favreau and Jon Lovett (not to be confused with Jon Favreau and Jon Lovitz) have resigned from the administration to try their hands at screenwriting.
So even though Judd got skittish after Karl Rove’s nasty preemptive attack on her, we can expect more celebrities to at least flirt with the idea of a run in the coming years. For some, it’s a simple career choice. Hollywood gets awfully fickle about aging actors (and especially actresses), so it is natural that some would look to politics when their acting careers begin to head south.
Of course, speculation in this area can run wild – everyone seemed pretty sure that Affleck was going to run for John Kerry’s seat a few months ago, remember – so it’s important to note that those who are well-known for their political activism are actually less likely to run. That means people like Matt Damon and Mark Ruffalo, two anti-fracking activists, will probably remain on the outskirts of the political process, trying to use their celebrity to raise awareness. What we are looking for are celebrities who have been active supporting political candidates but only delve into issue-based politics when there is a broad consensus. These are the actors who are already on their way to becoming politicians:
The star of hit TV show House and the Harold and Kumar franchise, Penn used his celebrity to help elect Obama in 2008 and was particularly adept at using social media to energize the youth vote. He didn’t break any new ground – a lot of celebrities supported Obama’s campaign – but the shock came when he voluntarily left House to accept a job with the Obama administration, as Associate Director in the White House Office of Public Liaison. It was not a prestige job; Penn’s face was rarely seen at public events. The move had the look of a resume builder, which will come in useful should Penn decide to run for higher office one day. He has been evasive on the subject – “Who’s to say where any path leads?” he told a reporter in 2009 – but he has a lot going for him. He is a recognizable face and is representative of a demographic – Indian-Americans – whose influence in politics is growing (see Jindal, Bobby and Haley, Nikki). Penn left the White House and returned to acting in 2012 (for the forgettable A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas), but he will have a lot of doors open to him if he decides to make a play for elected office. Chance to Run: 50%
Everyone loves a political underdog, and Sean Astin has got the market cornered. Best known for Rudy, the football movie that makes even the toughest men in American cry, Astin has never been shy about his interest in politics. Best yet, he has a track record of bipartisanship. He served as a civilian aide to the Secretary of the Army during the Clinton administration, a post he held for 10 years. In 2003, George W. Bush appointed him to the President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation. In the last few years, however, he has begun to learn the business of campaigning. He publicly supported John Kerry in 2004 and Hillary Clinton in 2008; in 2011, he stepped into electoral politics for the first time as campaign manager for friend and Democratic congressional candidate Dan Adler. While Adler lost his race, Astin has continued to float the idea of a run. He told The Hill that he’d “love to be a member of the United States House of Representatives.” Astin seems to have a good shot, if he can use his iconic roles to connect with voters and highlight his seemingly genuine dedication to public service as key elements of his campaign. Chance to Run: 75%
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
So far, all Johnson has said about a potential run for office has been, “I wouldn’t rule it out.” But if he can save two fledgling film franchises, why not a nation? Johnson has been a gun-for-hire of late, revitalizing the Fast and Furious franchise – the last two films, in which Johnson appeared, were the highest grossers of the series. He also came on board for the sequel to GI Joe, which won the box office last weekend. In fact, he has no less than five movies coming out just in the first half of this year, and all of them look like hits. A modern action star, Johnson often takes to social media to espouse his broadly patriotic views and even broke the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death that way, after a Marine friend of his told him the news early. With these moves, Johnson seems poised to follow in the footsteps of Arnold Schwarzenegger, another muscle-bound pragmatic Republican who used his action-star credentials to launch a political career. And this one has already played president. Chance to Run: 40%
This one may be years away. Johansson is young enough and hot enough that it should be twenty years before the Hollywood machine cruelly spits her out, but she seems to be planning ahead. She campaigned hard for Obama in 2012 and gave a surprisingly polished speech at the Democratic National Convention. She has also lent her name to several mainstream political efforts, such as the Healthy School Meals Act, a bill that “would ensure that the meals provided to low-income students are healthful.” A proud Democrat and native New Yorker, Johansson would not have trouble winning a Congressional race in Manhattan or a state-wide Senate race, although she might have some competition from the next potential candidate on this list. Chance to Run: 25%
The former star of The Nanny and…(somebody help me out here) seems driven by a genuine desire to effect change, but it’s not clear she has a feel for politics. In 2010, she told Fox News that she was disappointed in President Obama and cited Franklin Roosevelt as an example of good leadership. She went on to claim that her major areas of interest are promoting education, discussing veganism, and exposing the objectification of women in society.
Sounds like a solid liberal, but she told Anderson Cooper last year that she has been encouraged to run by both Democrats and Republicans and that she has rather specific plans. “Not the House,” she said. “Ideally, I would rather run in the Senate.” As a resident of New York and with that recognizable tri-state accent, her options are rather limited. It seems doubtful that either Chuck Schumer or Kirsten Gillibrand are going anywhere anytime soon, and it’s hard to see a place for Drescher – a vegan, pro-education conservative who is concerned with the objectification with women – in the Republican party. Chance to Run: 35%