The American political chess match just got a little more interesting: Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Hollywood hero universally known for his action/sci-fi roles in the 1980s and early 1990s, may run for a U.S. Senate seat in California in 2018. The news is intriguing on several fronts and could cause consternation, and excitement within both political parties. Let us explore how the Governator might shake up the Senate.
First of all, Schwarzenegger is a Republican…but not just any Republican. The iconic Terminator actor would best be identified as a liberal Republican, which shakes up the political calculus in Washington. As a governor of California, one of the most liberal states, the Republican was considerably further to the left than most of his GOP colleagues in statehouses. A widely-known topic of liberal opinion for the former bodybuilder is the environment. While many Republicans are climate-change skeptics, Schwarzenegger has plainly stated that everyone should be taking man-made climate change very seriously.
As a liberal Republican, wealthy movie star and Hollywood mogul, and a two-term governor, Schwarzenegger may be the only member of the GOP who has a chance of defeating U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) if she chooses to run again in 2018. Feinstein will be 85 by next November, but has hinted that she will seek another term in Washington. Although Schwarzenegger will be a not-so-youthful 71 on election day, the seven-time Mr. Olympia has kept in good physical shape and shows few signs of slowing down. Schwarzenegger, even as a Republican in California, could dominate the media game against Feinstein. His Hollywood credentials will get him any desired spot on late-night talk shows, and his action movie legacy will generate thousands of popular memes. It will be difficult for any rival to generate as much press as the Governator…and the Austrian Oak nets free advertising any time one of his movies airs on television. Just by being Arnold, the former governor will almost certainly win the media’s “invisible primary” in a 2018 Senate race.
Second, Arnold Schwarzenegger has a feud with Donald Trump. Being a public critic of the controversial president has boosted the former governor’s media coverage lately, and will certainly help him win kudos from the left. In California, a Republican who repudiates Donald Trump may be almost embraced as a de facto Democrat. If Feinstein runs for re-election, her campaign will not be able to attack Schwarzenegger as a Trump-supporting stooge, a charge to which most incumbent Republicans in 2018 will be vulnerable.
Democrats hoping to keep Feinstein’s seat safe will have to dredge up old stuff to attack Arnold, which may be less successful than they hope. Although Schwarzenegger does have a controversial past – rivaling that of fellow adulterer Donald Trump – it did not stop his political ambitions back in 2003. Like Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton, and the Donald before him, Schwarzenegger will likely be unfazed by news about his private life if and when he decides to run for office once more.
If Dems criticize Arnold’s past, the Governator can win the war of sound bites by talking about how he plans to fix the future. The news cycle will focus more on Schwarzenegger’s feud with Trump and less on allegations of past groping and infidelity, allowing the liberal Republican to portray himself as a common-sense leader who will take the fight to radical conservatives in Congress.
Third, you have Schwarzenegger’s unique ability to guide the GOP away from Trumpism. For anti-Trump Republicans in Congress, Schwarzenegger’s arrival may seem like a godsend. The former action star has the public profile and media chops to take the Donald head-on. Although Trump may be an obnoxious buffoon, he has charisma and a cunning for press coverage that few opponents can hope to match.
Anti-Trump Republicans like John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Rand Paul, and Mark Sanford cannot compare to Arnold Schwarzenegger when it comes to the bully pulpit. They need Arnold to help lead their struggle against Trumpism, and might thus support his 2018 Senate campaign quite actively. From across the country, anti-Trump conservatives and moderates may view Schwarzenegger, due to his public feud with the president, as an avenging angel. He alone will be able to draw big money donations from far outside California… although his personal wealth means he doesn’t exactly need it!
Given Schwarzenegger’s unique ability to combat the Donald, Democrats will have to decide whether or not to strongly oppose the man’s plan to unseat Dianne Feinstein. Although Feinstein’s supporters will certainly fight for her re-election, the Democratic Party may resist trying to bring reinforcement from outside the state to assist. Even within California, liberal leaders may plan to conserve their ammo for other battles.
The rationale is that losing another Democratic seat in the Senate, when the GOP already controls that body, may actually be worth it if the new Republican Senator is guaranteed to be a better Trump opponent than any Democrat.
Of course, that’s where things get tricky. Although Schwarzenegger is clearly no fan of Donald Trump, how actively would he vote against Trump’s proposals if and when he becomes a Senator? While conservative Republicans may be leery of Schwarzenegger’s status as an environmentalist and an opponent of crackdowns on immigration, the immigrant from Austria does have deep party convictions: He became a Republican in 1968, shortly after arriving in the United States, and has never changed party affiliation.
Arnold may be eager to go against the president, but will he be willing to go against his own party? If Dems stand aside and let Schwarzenegger claim Feinstein’s Senate seat, the gamble will be whether or not the Governator, as a liberal Republican who repudiates Trump, will prove to be a more powerful foil against the president than Feinstein currently is. If Dems stick with Feinstein, nothing changes in Washington. If Schwarzenegger enters the Senate, there’s a chance he could rally many Republicans against the president… or prove to be a big regret.