As a professional wrestler, Jesse Ventura mimicked Gorgeous George, one of his flamboyant predecessors.
“Win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat,” Ventura intoned during televised interviews to hype his matches.
In a country obsessed with celebrities, Ventura used his prominence as a swaggering villain to win election as governor of Minnesota. He did it as a third-party candidate, no less.
The culture of celebrity also has given America two presidents in the last 40 years, Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump. It transformed bodybuilder and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger into the governor of California. Attorney Fred Thompson made a mark during the Watergate hearings, but his fame grew after he switched to acting. Then he won election to the U.S. Senate from Tennessee.
They proved that someone who appears regularly on television or in movies can win high public office, sometimes with little or no experience in government.
Is the culture of celebrity in New Mexico pervasive enough to send a TV weatherman to the U.S. Senate?
Probably not. But a race that was duller than a 15-watt bulb has a different dynamic all at once.
Republican Mark Ronchetti, 46, became the best-known candidate as soon as he announced he was running.
He was television station KRQE’s chief meteorologist, a job more about show business than science. As an on-air personality for 13 years in the state’s biggest market, Ronchetti has name recognition superior to the rest of the candidates.
He outpoints his four Republican rivals and the front-runner in the Senate race, Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján.
Luján has never been on the ballot in a statewide election, and most voters in Albuquerque are represented by Congresswoman Deb Haaland. Though Luján has been in the House of Representatives for 11 years, his name recognition across New Mexico can’t match Ronchetti’s.
Luján, though, is still a heavy favorite to win the Senate race. He will try to use Ronchetti’s candidacy to pad his fundraising advantage.
For months Luján has made baseless tabloid-style claims about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky raising millions of dollars to defeat him. Luján’s tactic of saying anything in his pleas for cash is sure to continue now that he can use Ronchetti as his foil.
To be seen is how well Ronchetti will hold up in a campaign. He has never had to face scrutiny from political reporters or explain his stands on complex issues.
New Mexico’s last celebrity candidate for the U.S. Senate arrived on the political scene from outer space.
Republican Harrison Schmitt received a doctorate in geology from Harvard College, became an astronaut and walked on the moon as part of the Apollo 17 crew.
Schmitt started strong, then flamed out. He defeated a two-term Democratic incumbent to win a Senate seat in 1976, but lost it after one term.
Democrat Jeff Bingaman, who was the state attorney general, ousted Schmitt in 1982. Bingaman’s camp used a memorable slogan against the moonwalker: “What on earth has he done for you lately?”
Reagan, a Democrat turned Republican who had acted in B movies, was the most successful celebrity candidate in history. He ran for governor of California in 1966 and defeated the two-term Democratic incumbent, Pat Brown.
Reagan took office in 1967 and began campaigning for president that same year. He received more total votes in the 1968 primaries than any Republican candidate, but fellow Californian Richard Nixon took more states on his way to the nomination.
Reagan again ran unsuccessfully for president in 1976. He won the nation’s highest office in 1980 and 1984.
Bill Bradley, a Rhodes scholar and starter on the great New York Knicks teams of the 1970s, might be the most successful celebrity candidate on the Democratic side. He won three terms as a U.S. senator from New Jersey. Bradley sought the presidency in 2000, but quit after foundering in early primaries.
Democrat Fred Harris, now a New Mexico resident, was responsible for a monumental upset of a celebrity candidate. Harris won a U.S. Senate seat in Oklahoma by besting that state’s most famous resident.
He was just 33 when he defeated Republican Bud Wilkinson, legendary coach of the University of Oklahoma’s powerhouse football teams.
A significant advantage for Harris was having President Lyndon Johnson at the top of the ticket in that election of 1964.
The coach’s strategy also cost him. Wilkinson had South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond campaign for him in a section of Oklahoma known as Little Dixie.
“He brought in the strongest racist in the Senate when the polls showed we were splitting the black vote 50-50,” Harris once told me. “By the end, I was getting nine of every 10 of those votes.”
Harris went on to run for president without success.
Wilkinson became a network television broadcaster of college football games before returning to coaching with the old St. Louis Cardinals of the National Football League. The Cards fired him after he lost 20 of 29 games across two seasons.
Ronchetti had a long ride without controversy as a weatherman. He’s entered a rougher business.
We’ll see soon enough if he’s ready for professional politics or out of his element.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-986-3080.