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Violence! Sex! Defiance! Trump's over-the-top presidency has changed the rules for prospective candidates

Violence! Sex! Defiance! Trump's over-the-top presidency has changed the rules for prospective candidates
A Kid Rock Senate candidacy in Michigan could have been the ultimate test of the new political normal in the age of President Trump. (Tanya Moutzalias / Associated Press)

Roy Moore was twice ousted from the Alabama Supreme Court for flouting the U.S. Constitution. Now he’s on a path to become the state’s next U.S. senator.

Scott Wagner accosted a videographer recording him as he campaigned for Pennsylvania governor. He's since won the endorsement of Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s political alter ego, and is a strong contender to win the GOP nomination.

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Kid Rock, the country-rapper-rock star whose resume includes a sex tape, Waffle House brawl and enough raunchy lyrics to fill a pornographic novel, was treated as a serious prospect for Senate in Michigan until he removed himself from consideration Tuesday in characteristically colorful fashion.

“No, I’m not running for Senate,” he said in an expletive-laden announcement on Howard Stern’s SiriusXM radio show. “Are you … kidding me?”

Clearly, the old rules of political campaigning no longer apply in this age of President Trump.

A checkered background or behavior once considered highly problematic — if not instantly disqualifying — is no longer an obstacle for those seeking public office. For some political job-seekers, it matters not at all.

“There aren’t many kill shots left in a post-Trump world,” said Jared Leopold. The strategist for the Democratic Governors Assn. started in politics as an opposition researcher, rooting for the damning detail — infidelity, unpaid taxes, a violent outburst — that could dispatch a candidate to oblivion.

“In this new … world, basically it’s anything goes as long as you’re brash and unapologetic,” said Joe DiSano, a Michigan Democratic strategist. “There’s no shame anymore.”

Politics tends to mirror culture, so over time campaign standards have shifted in ways that reflect larger societal changes.

Divorce was once a serious handicap; presidential candidates Adlai Stevenson and Nelson Rockefeller both suffered politically because of their broken marriages. Then attitudes changed and divorce lost its stigma. By the time the twice-wed Ronald Reagan won the White House in 1980, his marital history was a non-issue.

In 1992, Bill Clinton felt compelled to alibi his youthful encounter with marijuana. He tried it, he famously stated, but “didn't inhale.” By 2008, Barack Obama’s admission of casual drug use, smoking marijuana and even trying “a little blow,” or cocaine, scarcely mattered to voters with their own histories of dabbling in drugs.

Trump is a product of reality TV and its over-the-top sensibility; he was first introduced to millions of voters as host of “The Apprentice,” playing Hollywood’s version of a business mogul.

But he’s also changing the political culture from within. By shattering norms — boasting of forcing himself on women, feuding with the families of killed soldiers, trolling his foes on Twitter — he has done more than any figure in recent memory to redefine the bounds of political propriety, at least for his base of core supporters within the Republican Party.

Basically it’s anything goes as long as you’re brash and unapologetic. There's no shame anymore.


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“Trump has made outrageousness successful,” said Ed Sarpolus, a longtime political pollster in Michigan. “You don’t have to fit the traditional norms to run and win.”

With attention turning to the 2018 midterm election, an improbable crop of Republican candidates have begun testing the bounds of convention.

Former Rep. Michael Grimm is running to reclaim his congressional seat on Staten Island after completing seven months in prison for tax fraud. Erik Prince, the founder of the controversial Blackwater security firm, which has a history of legal problems, is contemplating a Senate bid in Wyoming — challenging the GOP incumbent John Barrasso — even though he has not lived in the state in years.

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Fueling their efforts are the same contempt for the political status quo and anger at establishment figures that helped place Trump in the White House. “I think people are still in the mood of, ‘I don’t care if it’s the garbageman. I’ll vote for him if I think he’ll make a difference and bring about change,’” said Fred Davis, a Republican strategist.

Moore’s ouster from the Alabama bench, for ignoring federal laws pertaining to same-sex marriage and the separation of church and state, might once have been a career-killer. But if anything, his willful defiance enhanced the renegade image that pushed him past the establishment favorite, appointed Sen. Luther Strange, in last month’s GOP primary.

With the backing of Bannon, Trump’s former campaign strategist and White House advisor, Moore is strongly favored to win the seat in a December runoff against Democratic attorney Doug Jones.

In Pennsylvania, state Sen. Wagner was caught on tape confronting a cameraman, or “tracker,” from the liberal group American Bridge, who was recording Wagner’s appearance in hopes of capturing a misstep. Both sides routinely conduct such public surveillance. Wagner seized the camera, confiscated the memory card and, according to the cameraman, bloodied his finger.

The assault might once have become a major issue in the governor’s race — Democrats said it showed a man unhinged — raising doubts about Wagner’s stability and temperament. So far, however, the episode has caused barely a ripple.

In Michigan, the prospective Senate candidacy of native son Robert Ritchie, better known by his stage name Kid Rock, perhaps best exemplifies the new political normal.

Ever since his name was floated at the state GOP convention in February, Kid Rock was treated as a serious contender against three-term incumbent Democrat Debbie Stabenow, although there were reasons all along to question whether he was serious about running.

His campaign website — touting, among other works, his song “Pimp of the Nation” — linked to a merchandising page hosted by his record company and lead to another site promoting Rock’s upcoming performance schedule, which was notably devoid of political appearances.

Still, given his X-rated lyrics and well-documented debauchery, it is noteworthy how some not only viewed Rock as a viable candidate but seemed heartened by the possibility of him running.

Al Decker and his wife, Michelle, both 53, hold factory jobs outside Grand Rapids. They voted for Trump, seeing it as a way to extend a middle finger at Washington, and would gladly have supported Rock for Senate as a way to underscore their continued disgust with the same political same-old.

Rock’s picaresque past — the boozing and brawling and sex-drenched headlines — is not the least off-putting, Michelle Decker said as she recently stood outside the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum.

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Unlike some politicians, she said, “He is who he says he is.”

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