AUSTIN, Texas — In 2006, mystery author and musical humorist Kinky Friedman ran for governor of Texas as an independent on the slogan: “Why the hell not?” He lost, but Texans seem open to the same concept with a different candidate: Matthew McConaughey.
The Oscar-winning actor says he’s seriously considering a race for governor next year, and he can take encouragement from a poll by The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler. It shows him leading incumbent Republican Gov. Greg Abbott by 45% to 33%, with the remainder holding out for Willie Nelson.
Just kidding. Texans love Willie too much to want to burden him with the duties of office.
But they could be willing to inflict those on the star who came to fame as a libidinous pothead in the movie “Dazed and Confused,” set and filmed in Austin.
In another day, a candidate might be destroyed by a record that includes being detained in 1999 by police who found him naked, playing bongo drums in his home and uncompliant.
But McConaughey has a raffish charm that makes such hijinks forgivable. Upon his release from the Austin jail, he said, “I don’t want to rent a place there, but it was a nice stay for a night.”
Charm is useful though not essential in an aspiration for high office, and the same can be said for knowledge of the details of government. It would be rash to dismiss McConaughey as a joke now that Donald Trump has shown that nothing is impossible. The former president is a model of how celebrity and notoriety can make all the difference in a race against people offering only experience, ability and ideological consistency. See also: Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The 51-year-old Texan has exceptional name identification and solid Lone Star credentials.
Football fans have seen him on the sidelines supporting the Texas Longhorns, who represent his alma mater. His Brazilian-born wife Camila, a model, has a huge following on Instagram. Raising money would be a cinch.
McConaughey, however, hasn’t even said which party he would prefer, and his previous statements reveal no coherent outlook. In the radio interview where he raised the possibility of running, he offered vague bromides like, “I want to get behind personal values to rebind our social contracts with each other as Americans, as people again.”
But two-thirds of Democrats would vote for him over Abbott, and independents favor him by a 16-point margin. Even 30% of Republicans say, “All right, all right, all right!”
That McConaughey would be taken seriously may reveal the desperate state of the Texas Democratic Party, which has accumulated an encyclopedic knowledge of ways to lose. No Democrat has won a statewide election since VHS tapes roamed the earth, back in 1994.
Democrats hoped that demographic change would help deliver the state to Joe Biden. It didn’t.
They’ve tried everything to win the governorship: a brainy former Houston mayor (Bill White, 2010), an abortion-rights hero (Wendy Davis, 2014) and a Hispanic lesbian former sheriff (Lupe Valdez, 2018). All got trounced.
Nor are there any promising contenders waiting in the wings. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who gave Republican Sen. Ted Cruz a scare in 2018, made himself radioactive when, running for president, he promised, “Hell, yes, we’re gonna take your AR-15.” So the unshaven guy musing cryptically in those Lincoln commercials may not be the worst option for Texans weary of GOP rule.
Republicans, meanwhile, show signs of letting success go to their heads. In October, the state GOP chairman and the Republican agriculture commissioner joined a protest against the governor’s COVID-19 restrictions. His own party sued him for extending early voting last fall.
Abbott, who is staunchly if not excessively conservative, has urged the legislature to make Texas a “Second Amendment sanctuary state.” But he’s offended gun rights zealots by refusing to take a position on a House-passed bill allowing residents to carry pistols without a permit or training.
He could draw a primary challenger occupying the tiny sliver of space to his right. The trauma of the February deep freeze, when millions lost power for days and more than 100 died, could end up chilling voters’ regard for the guy in charge at the time.
The idea of replacing him with a novice who can be ridiculed as a Hollywood stoner may sound crazy. But in American politics, 2021, “crazy” is an obsolete term.