Oprah Winfrey should run for the U.S. Senate next year.
I know it sounds like a crazy idea, but it actually makes a lot of sense. She could fund her own campaign. She has a good personal story, having gone from "humble beginnings in rural Mississippi" to being "one of the most important figures in popular culture," according to her Web site. She has high name recognition -- about 21 million people in the United States watch her show each week -- and Time magazine named her one of the most influential figures of the 20th century. Plus, she'll be looking for employment soon: Oprah's already announced plans to quit her weekday gabfest in 2006.
The Democrats could use a candidate like Oprah in Illinois. She'd have a natural base of support from suburban women, who make up a crucial part of the electorate. She's already familiar with Capitol Hill, having testified before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary in the early 1990s. And the bill she was championing at the time -- the National Child Protection Act, which proposed to establish a national database of convicted child abusers -- was later signed into law by President Clinton. Not to mention the fact that she would bring needed diversity to the Senate, as the only African American and one of a small number of women.
Every day Oprah talks with ordinary Americans about their problems, which is more than most politicians can say about their relationships with constituents. She has recently interviewed political figures such as then-Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and former Gov. George Ryan (R-Ill.). She presents an optimistic vision and wants to empower people, worthy qualities in a politician. She started the Oprah's Angel Network in 1997, which has given scholarships to more than 150 children, donated money for more than 200 Habitat for Humanity houses and contributed to 34 schools in 10 countries. And she knows how to connect with others, a quality George W. Bush has and Al Gore doesn't. Oprah's not afraid to stand up to politicians, correcting Gore on her program in 2000 when he called CDs "albums." (She noted that the word was outdated.) And she would know how to coax reluctant witnesses to pipe up with important information at hearings. As a savvy self-promoter, she could also advise the Democratic party on the best way to get out its message.
If Oprah ran, it would most likely be in Illinois, where she hosts her show, so she would be trying to unseat freshman GOP Sen. Peter Fitzgerald. He's one of the Democrats' top targets next year, having won in 1998 with just 51 percent of the vote. Though a number of Democrats are lining up to challenge Fitzgerald, none is particularly well-known. There's Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas; State Comptroller Dan Hynes; investment banker Blair Hull; and Gary Chico, a former president of the Chicago Board of Education. This is clearly a field that's begging for someone with Oprah's name recognition.
Hers is also a fresh face. When I asked Illinois' two senators what they thought of the idea, both seemed surprised. "Get outta here," Democrat Richard Durbin said. Though he noted that Oprah has carefully avoided political involvement until now, he added, "She would have a national following. I hope she doesn't run against me." For his part, Fitzgerald said he hadn't heard anything about an Oprah campaign, and added that he's going to withhold commenting on any Democrats until after primary season in 2004.
The state's Republican Party is in disarray, which contributed to its loss of the governor's mansion last year. That bodes well for a Democratic candidate -- if the party can find the right person, that is. Oprah has already proven her success wearing a number of hats: talk-show host, magazine editor, actress, producer -- even college professor. Politics, where people spend most of their time talking and interacting with others, would in many ways be a natural next fit for her. In addition, Illinois voters -- who, in 1992, made Carol Moseley-Braun the Senate's only black member -- might be attracted to the idea of once again breaking a color barrier by sending an African American to a currently all-white Senate.
On the downside, Oprah would likely face opposition from the cattle industry, which lost a lawsuit against her (after she said, on a 1996 program, that she would not eat another hamburger because of concerns about mad cow disease). She also has no prior political experience. Keith Boeckelman, a political-science professor at Western Illinois University, said Illinois is "not a big outside state" -- that is, voters are generally reluctant to embrace political neophytes. Both Moseley-Braun and Fitzgerald had served in office before making it to the Senate. Of course, many current senators had never held elected seats before they went to Washington; take, for example, presidential aspirant Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) or Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).
There's a question, too, about Oprah's residence. She has a farm in Indiana but spends much of her time in Chicago. Of course, changing residences wouldn't be hard (after all, Dick Cheney did it right before he got tapped -- by himself -- as a 2000 vice presidential candidate). But I should also point out that I have no idea whether Oprah would even be interested in running. If she were, though, she'd make a credible and competitive candidate. There's already a Web site set up to draft her for president. "Oprah Winfrey is famous, scrupulously honest, immensely popular and wealthy in her own right," it reads. "While she has scant experience in politics, this is hardly a handicap in a world where most people have become disillusioned with 'conventional' politics."
So, as you can see, the support is there. And if you thought the media's interest in Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) was something to behold, wait until you see the press corps that would show up for Sen. Oprah Winfrey's first day in office. It would be like bringing reality TV to Capitol Hill. The reality, though, is that Oprah could win.
If she's willing to run.
Mary Lynn F. Jones is the Prospect's senior editor.
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