Kentucky’s Fancy Farm, billed as the largest picnic in America, turned into a partisan battlefield last weekend. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell sought to tie his Democrat opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, to the unpopular President Obama, while she compared the Republican to Mad Men – behind the times and bad for women. On the outskirts of the partisan mayhem, a smaller crowd gathered as a heavy-set man strode up to a podium in front of them. Gil Fulbright had arrived to declare his candidacy for the same Senate seat in front of a campaign bus with a number of corporate logos plastered on each side.
Fulbright has positioned himself as the honest candidate, one who will tell it like it is in speeches and campaign ads even when that means telling the voters something they don’t want to hear. He’s not afraid to admit he’s beholden to special interests, or that he prioritizes the wishes of donors over constituents. It’s the kind of politician you don’t expect to see in American politics, and with good reason: Gil Fulbright is not a real candidate.
Fulbright is a character, a satirical candidate for Kentucky’s Senate seat played by actor Frank Ridley. (He’s appeared in Orange Is the New Black, Inside Lleweyn Davis, and more.) He has all the trappings of a real candidate for national office: he arrived at Fancy Farm with two campaign busses and supporters in matching campaign shirts, even suit-clad security and an accompanying press corps. Later this month he’ll put up billboards throughout Kentucky and do a statewide television and radio ad buy.
Gil Fulbright is the brainchild of the organization Represent.us, a nonprofit organization advocating for reform of what it considers to be pervasive corruption in American politics. “If we scratch the surface of this satirical campaign,” says Josh Silver, Director of Represent.us, “underneath it is actually a very serious, national, bipartisan campaign to pass bold anti-corruption laws.” At the center of the organization’s efforts is the American Anti-Corruption Act. Written by Trevor Potter (Stephen Colbert’s attorney and collaborator on the Colbert SuperPAC, and former chairman of the F.E.C.) in consultation with Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig, the act aims to take on the many moving parts of what ails our political system, such as campaign finance and the so-called “revolving door.” They eventually want to pass a version of the law on the federal level, but in the meantime they’re using it as a template to craft initiatives for city and state legislatures.
All of Gil’s fundraising has been done through crowdfunding on his Indiegogo page. The initial goal was $20,000, which was met in five days. It’s now at $73,000, in part due to some very creative fundraising ploys. Along with classics like a t-shirt or goodie bag with buttons and bumper stickers, the page offers the donor status of “Corporate Crony” for a $5,000 donation, which will make you an official corporate sponsor of the campaign. That gets your logo on the bus, and it’ll get you on the NASCAR suit Gil will be sporting when he heads back down to Kentucky in September.
“I’m Gil Fulbright. For the right price, I’ll approve any message.”
Gil seems to have his finger on the popular pulse, taking a page from the Colbert playbook and using satire to grab the attention of the increasingly apathetic American voter. “This campaign – it’s not about me. It’s about crafting a version of me that’ll appeal to you,” he says blithely in his first campaign ad, while in an interview he describes his political views as “flexible – I’m like the Karma Sutra of political positions.” His motto: “I’m Gil Fulbright. For the right price, I’ll approve any message.”
Whether the Fulbright brand of satire is able to cut through the thick partisan haze of Fancy Farm and the like this weekend remains to be seen. For Gil’s part, he considered it a roaring success. “It was very successful, we got some nice soundbites out of it, we got a little bit of cash, we were able to spread the word – good for our donors, they’re very happy – and we got a little bit of press. And I ate some pork sandwiches.”
It served as quite the launch pad for a Fulbright campaign looking to tap into two critical veins of the Kentucky race: the tremendous amount of money pouring into it, and the prominent place it enjoys on the national media radar because it may just decide who runs the Senate. Really, though, Fulbright’s is a campaign that has very little to do with Kentucky at all. A victory for Gil – and for those who created him – would see more Americans talking about the money in their politics, and maybe even what the real politicians should do about it.