Phenomena far more astonishing, let alone preposterous, have occurred in American politics. There was, for instance, that Austrian body builder who mutated into a box-office titan and, despite a comically thick accent, leveraged his celebrity into two terms as governor of the nation’s most populous state.
The 40-year-old director and movie star—who has carved out a reputation over the past decade as a well-informed liberal activist—certainly didn’t shut the door this week when CBS News Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer grilled him on a prospective Affleck candidacy.
“One never knows. I’m not one to get into conjecture,” Affleck said when Schieffer, in a segment taped in Washington on Wednesday for the Sunday morning broadcast, asked if he’d consider running if the Bay State’s senior senator were to be nominated by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state.
“I do have a great fondness and admiration for the political process in this country,” continued Affleck, who played a corrupt congressman in the 2009 thriller State of Play. “It’s a big deal for me to come down here and be on your show that I’ve watched so much, but I’m not going to get into speculation about my political future.”
That was a decidedly un-Sherman-like statement. “It’s interesting that he didn’t say no,” said a longtime friend of the actor. Instead, his reference to “my political future” has created something of a Ben Affleck boomlet.
“He was here to testify before the House Armed Services Committee and we invited him to come by,” Schieffer told me. Affleck, founder of the nonprofit Eastern Congo Initiative, was sharing his expertise on the tenuous security situation in the violence-plagued African nation. “After I interviewed him,” Schieffer said, “every female who works at the CBS Washington Bureau was in the hallway as he was leaving. Funny how that happened. They were getting their pictures taken with him. He was very good-natured about it.”
Being polite to strangers, of course, doesn’t necessarily indicate political chops. But on Thursday, I talked to two top-tier Democratic strategists who view Affleck, a longtime Bay Stater and ardent Red Sox fan, as a potentially credible opponent for Sen. Scott Brown, the Massachusetts Republican who was defeated Nov. 6 by Elizabeth Warren and is widely expected to run for the open seat should Kerry be tapped for the State Department.
“I’ve met Affleck a few times—he’s a serious person,” said Daily Beast contributor Robert Shrum, the media consultant-turned-New York University professor who has advised Kerry, Al Gore, and the late Ted Kennedy, among many others, in statewide and national campaigns. Affleck “knows about the issues, he thinks about them … He’s very smart and well-spoken.”
Of course, if he decides to enter the race, Affleck would have to raise millions of dollars, and possibly spend his own money, in order to mount a plausible candidacy in what is likely to be a crowded field. Among the possible Democratic contenders: Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, who lost to Brown in the special election to replace Kennedy; U.S. Reps. Michael Capuano, Ed Markey, and Stephen Lynch; and even Ted Kennedy Jr., a Connecticut resident who is reportedly interested in the job.
“People will be inclined to take [Affleck] very seriously,” said Democratic consultant Tad Devine, who worked with Shrum on Ted Kennedy’s tough 1994 reelection race against Mitt Romney (and produced the very first Bain Capital spots). “The guy is a smart guy. He could certainly put together the funding for it. If he’s got something to say, it’s credible. I honestly do not dismiss him.”
Affleck would have to earn the position: Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has made clear he’d follow tradition and appoint a caretaker senator with no ambitions to run in a special election four months after Kerry’s hypothetical departure.
Devine estimated that during that whirlwind campaign, Affleck would need to spend around $21 million to buy 30,000 gross rating points of television advertising (meaning every single voter would see 30 Affleck for Senate ads) in the major media markets of Boston, Springfield, and Providence, R.I. The actor would need an additional $4 million for the campaign operation, Devine calculated.
“The initial scrutiny would be very intense,” Devine said. “If the guy comes onto the stage saying he’s going to run for high office, the United States Senate, he’ll immediately be put to the test. He’s going to have to have substantive positions on issues and show that he understands the workings of government. He’ll be met by hundreds of reporters—that’s not an exaggeration—and they’ll be all over him. If he can get through all that, he’ll have to be taken seriously.”
Affleck could also be a formidable adversary for Brown in the beefcake department—an actual campaign beauty contest. Brown famously posed in the nude for Cosmopolitan back in the early 1980s. Affleck is more of a GQ kinda guy