NFL, NBA Provide Recruiting Ground for Republicans in November

Former professional athlete Chris Dudley
Chris Dudley, seen here, is one of at least five former professional athletes running as Republicans for state and federal offices for the November election. Photographer: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

In a close election race, it doesn’t hurt to have a built-in fan base.

Chris Dudley, in his first political race, is happy to have support in Oregon’s governor’s contest from voters who are more impressed by his six seasons as a center for the National Basketball Association’s Portland Trailblazers than his degree in economics and political science from Yale University or experience as a partner in the money-management firm Filigree Advisors.

“Take it any way you can get it,” the 6-foot, 11-inch Dudley said.

Dudley, 45, is one of at least five former professional athletes running as Republicans for state and federal offices for the November election. That’s no coincidence, according to Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, head of the Republican congressional recruitment.

McCarthy helped persuade former Philadelphia Eagles tackle Jon Runyan to run for New Jersey’s 3rd congressional district against first-term Democrat John Adler.

“A lot of people are athletes but only a few get to that high level,” he said. “People know him when you walk into the room.”

That has worked for Shawn Bradley, the 7-foot, 6-inch former center who played for the Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks who is running for a seat in Utah’s legislature. Other former athletes running as Republicans this year are Keith Fimian, who played briefly for the Cleveland Browns and is seeking a House seat from Virginia, and former Washington Redskins tight end Clint Didier, who is seeking the Republican nomination for Senate in Washington.

Second Careers

They are following a well-worn path into second careers.

The late Jack Kemp played football for the Buffalo Bills and the San Diego Chargers before being elected to Congress as a Republican from the Buffalo, New York, area. Former New Jersey Democratic Senator Bill Bradley played for the New York Knicks and retiring Senator Jim Bunning, a Republican from Kentucky, is a Hall-of-Fame pitcher who played for Major League Baseball’s Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia Phillies.

The list also includes North Carolina Democratic Representative Heath Shuler, who played quarterback for three National Football League teams. While Shuler is seeking reelection, Democrats haven’t put any new recruits from the world of professional athletics on the ballot for November.

Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, said politics is a natural draw for people who’ve spent much of their careers in public view.

Life in Public

“Given how pumped up these guys are with the attention they get from the public, where else can you get it?” Baker said. “You get it in Hollywood, you can get it in professional sports, and you get it in American national politics.”

Runyan, 36, said the two careers are complementary.

“You spend a lot of time in the NFL creating a brand of who you are and going out and selling yourself to people, and it’s much the same thing here,” he said.

In Democratic-leaning Oregon, Dudley is in a dead heat with Democrat John Kitzhaber in a SurveyUSA poll taken July 25-27 that gave him a 2 percentage point lead, within the error margin of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points. He’s compiled a $1 million advantage in fundraising, according to campaign filings. Among his contributors is Phil Knight, chairman of Beaverton, Oregon-based Nike Inc., who has donated $100,000.

Spending and Jobs

Dudley -- who McCarthy said he tried to recruit for a congressional run -- is campaigning on a platform of controlling state spending and promoting private-sector job growth.

“Oregon can do so much better,” he said in an interview. “We have to embrace business and job creation, and frankly we can’t afford the quality of life that we enjoy here in Oregon if we don’t have jobs.”

To be sure, athletic fame doesn’t guarantee electoral success.

Former Buffalo Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Jay Riemersma lost in the Aug. 3 Republican primary to run for the U.S. House from Michigan. Didier, who was endorsed by former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, trails incumbent Democratic Senator Patty Murray and former state Senator Dino Rossi, a Republican, in today’s Washington’s primary, in which the top two finishers move on to the general election.

A July 27-Aug. 1 poll by Raleigh, North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling put Didier’s support at 10 percent, compared with 47 percent for Murray and 33 percent for Rossi.

Runyan trailed Adler 31 percent to 25 percent for the New Jersey House seat in an Aug. 5-8 Rutgers University poll. Fully 34 percent of those polled said they don’t know.

Former Representative Steve Largent, an Oklahoma Republican who is in the NFL’s Hall of Fame, said it takes more than name recognition to win office.

“At the end of the day all the Oklahomans I talked to were more interested in my position on taxes and regulation or business and commerce than if I ran a good out-route,” said Largent, who lost his race for Oklahoma governor in 2002.

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