Former “Little House on the Prairie” star Melissa Gilbert launched a Democratic bid for a Congressional seat in Michigan on Monday, making her the latest in a long line of actors-turned-politicians.
While several actresses have flirted with a future in politics — think Ashley Judd or Fran Drescher — Gilbert is one of the few to actually take the plunge. In fact, you’d have to go back to Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas (D-Calif.), who served three House terms starting in 1944 before being defeated in a bitter 1950 Senate campaign against Richard Nixon, to find an example of a former actress enjoying sustained political success.
That said, several of Hollywood’s brightest stars have served as mayors (Clint Eastwood), senators (Al Franken), governors (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura) and even in the White House (Ronald Reagan). Every one of these successes and some of the failures could provide Gilbert with a glimpse of what she has in store. Being a celebrity candidate can have its advantages but it can also backfire. Just ask Fred Thompson.
Here are few do’s and don’ts that Gilbert might want to heed as she gears up for 2016:
Have a strong narrative. For all voters’ talk about being sick and tired of traditional politicians, they tend to favor them when push comes to shove. It’s often hard to persuade the public to get behind someone without a background in government — unless, of course, they have a compelling arc to their candidacy. Take Schwarzenegger for instance. He was initially dismissed as just another famous face vying to replace embattled Democratic California Gov. Gray Davis back in 2003, but as voters in the state grew increasingly embittered with Davis’ perceived ineffectuality, they gravitated to Schwarzenegger’s can-do bravado. He campaigned on a willingness to go to war with the “girlie men” in the legislature and won handily.
Don’t appear too glib. Even though Gilbert has been off television for years, she doesn’t want to risk seeming elitist or out of touch. In an era when Democrats are often mocked for just getting the endorsements of celebrities, that can be a challenge. Still, a little humility goes a long way. Clint Eastwood was far more famous than his hometown community of Carmel, California, but he didn’t campaign that way when he won the mayoralty there in 1986. Entertainer Sonny Bono also famously toned down his persona for politics, even though he had scored chart topping hits alongside his former wife Cher. And most recently, Sen. Al Franken, who became a liberal icon for his acerbic comedic commentary, was much more serious on the campaign trail when he won Minnesota U.S. senate races in 2008 and again in 2014.
Play to your strengths. Part of what helps propel celebrities past rank and file politicos is their personal charisma. The worst thing a star candidate can do is try to distance themselves too much from what people love the most about them. Clay Aiken understandably didn’t want to be seen as just a former “American Idol” contestant when he ran for a North Carolina congressional seat two years ago, but Gilbert should have an easier time grappling with her claim to fame. Even for those who didn’t grow up with it, “Little House on the Prairie” evokes wholesome, old-fashioned values that will appeal to voters that may not traditionally vote Democratic. And being outspoken doesn’t hurt either. Former wrestler and actor Jesse Ventura was far from a conventional candidate when he ran for governor in 1998, but his brash, in-your-face style endeared him to Minnesota voters and played a huge part in his eventual victory.
All politics is local. Voters will only be so enamored with a hometown hero who made it in Hollywood. For example, even though Steelers fans are ubiquitous in Pennsylvania, that wasn’t enough to get Super Bowl hero Lynn Swann elected governor as Republican candidate in 2006. Candidates have to show a real awareness of the practical concerns of the community they are looking to represent, something that Gilbert appears to get. ”Here in Michigan, I know people are doing their best to make a good life for themselves and their families,” she said in a statement Monday. “When it comes down to it, I think that’s what we all really want.”
Have some substance. Gilbert led the highly influential Screen Actor’s Guild from 2001 to 2005 and, although it’s not a political organization, that post did help launch the electoral career of the most successful performer-turned-politician to date: Ronald Reagan. The late conservative darling demonstrated executive acumen running SAG from 1946 to 1952. Gilbert will have to possess some of Reagan’s ideological fortitude to win a district that has historically been a Republican stronghold. “I’m running for Congress to make life a little easier for all the families who feel they have fallen through the cracks in today’s economy,” she said in a campaign statement. “I believe building a new economy is a team effort, and we need to bring fresh voices to the table to get the job done.”