Politics is as much about physical presence as anything else. For as long as democracy has existed, citizens have been drawn to Charisma, which comes only partially from ideas or arguments, from the content of a politician’s rhetoric. The rest is made of physical gifts, face and body, movement and sound, stance and stride. Obama would not be president if he were ugly or ungainly.
Montana Democrats are lucky this cycle in this regard. We have a gubernatorial candidate, Steve Bullock, who looks, acts and talks in a way that citizens and voters will to respond to.
The GOP has a problem in this regard, as was made apparent by Matt Gouras’s piece in the IR this past Sunday (though I’ve linked to a non-Lee paper for those saving clicks) profiling the GOP field.
Their frontrunner is 64 year old Rick Hill. You don’t go into politics at that age. You retire. But Hill is chasing glory. Long in the tooth, stodgy, with failing eyesight and grayed hair and adultery in his past, Hill seems a poor contrast to Bullock, who is in his mid-forties, young and energetic, sharp, with a model family. How Hill’s 1976 affair, if it becomes an issue at all, will be affected by voters’ reception of Hill’s physical appearance is unclear. If Hill fails to explain thoroughly to voters that his affair is ancient history, then voters might settle on an image of a crusty old pervert, wearing boxers, an undershirt and knee-high dress socks, chasing a young waitress around a hotel room.
Nearest to Hill (in age and money) is Neil Livingstone, who is also 64, a follicly challenged, aloof but wealthy guy who hasn’t the slightest idea how to be a candidate or run a campaign or keep up appearances. Aside from his shiny dome, Livingstone has defined himself, in what little press coverage he’s received, as someone who is from Washington DC, not Montana. Politics is a young man’s game. To wit, only someone from Livingstone’s generation would think it wise to spend campaign money on consultants who live in Peru. True, Livingstone has chosen a GOP rising star as his second, but it’s unlikely to be enough to keep the Livingstone ship afloat.
Corey Stapleton, the diminutive former state senator from Billings, is probably the most savvy and up-to-date of the field in terms of how modern races are won. A young man, he’s come of age in the internet era. But its not clear that he brings any distinguishing aspect to the race. And he’s a recovering addict of some unknown substance problem, a fact which he made an oblique reference to on his Wikipedia page, and then deleted.
If looks and height alone were what mattered, Ken Miller might be the GOP’s man. Tall, dark hair, and not a bad looking fellow. But when he opens his mouth, he has a problem. His introductory video was widely derided across the internet as utterly comic, his delivery horrendous, his sentences vacuous. He is like an SNL skit version of a politician.
Then there is Jeff Essmann, who has been a rotund presence in the rotunda since he filled John Bohlinger’s vacant senate seat, and who has now staked his political future on an anti-pot crusade. Essmann was caught off-guard on a radio show when he was asked whether he’d ever smoked pot. He seemed to fumble with his answer, as if trying to stall for time to make a quick but crucial decision. One commenter here has said Essmann at least looks like he often gets the munchies. I’ll reserve comment. And as Gouras points out, Denny Rehberg’s team of goons seems to be quietly getting behind an Essmann candidacy. Why? Unclear. Perhaps Denny doesn’t like Rick Hill, because Hill probably detests Denny. After all, Denny chased Hill out of his congressional seat back in the 90s. So I guess Denny has to now pick a horse for governor other than Hill, and he’s settled on Essmann.
One thing is clear: the GOP primary ain’t no beauty contest.