With all that good material in Congress, why would comedian Bill Maher choose one of its blander, seemingly more innocuous members as the winner of his “Flip a District” contest? Wisconsin Republican John Kline wasn’t on anybody’s radar in Washington as someone who might be vulnerable, or a potential pickup for the Democrats in the November election.
The choice of Kline was widely mocked by the punditocracy as less than optimal. Real Time executive producer Scott Carter explains that putting Kline in the media spotlight is a way to highlight the student debt issue. Kline chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and Maher’s calling him out on his conservative positions could mobilize young voters in his district and elsewhere.
Kline emerged from a field of 16, then made it to the Final Four, with Reps. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), and Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.), all with higher profiles than Kline, and in more high-stakes races.
“We weren’t going for the biggest clown in the House,” says Carter, who concedes Kline is “kind of a bland individual. But we wanted to identify this issue of student debt as one the voters in his district know about and care about.” More importantly, Kline’s disaffected constituents mounted the winning grassroots campaign, exhibiting a level of discontent that Carter says Maher’s campaign can tap into.
Maher will visit the district, but he will not be donating to the campaign of former Minnesota state representative Mike Obermueller, of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (the state’s Democratic Party), who is challenging Kline for the second time.
Under current campaign law it would constitute illegal coordination. Carter says he didn’t even know the name of Kline’s challenger when they named Kline the contest winner. “Game changer for our campaign!” Obermueller tweeted. As for Maher, he likes to say, “There’s nothing positive about what we’re doing; we’re simply being negative against one member of Congress.”
This is nothing like the million-dollar donation Maher made to the Obama campaign in 2012. This will be more like an air war with Maher responding week to week to developments in the campaign and any broadsides from Kline, and citing more reasons why he shouldn’t be returned to Congress. The race should give Maher fresh material for his fall season of Friday night Real Time shows.
Easily reelected in 2012 to his sixth term in the House, Kline has never received less than 54 percent of the vote, a landslide in these partisan times. He is, like so many of the 435 members of the House, coasting to reelection while taking positions that many in his district may not agree with but feel powerless to change, and as a consequence often don’t bother to vote. That is especially true of young people, Maher’s target audience in his campaign to oust Kline.
“We thought we could make the bigger statement about Kline,” says Carter. Instead of highlighting other lawmakers who have made clownish statements, Maher chose someone who would otherwise get no attention, but who wields considerable power around the issues that touch young voters most—student loan debt, and climate change.
In a statement that first appeared on Medialite, a Kline spokesman ticked off Maher’s history of controversial statements and said Obermueller “promotes this behavior essentially naming Maher as his campaign manager.”
In announcing Kline as the winner, Maher called him “the living embodiment of legislators for hire, the Men’s Warehouse of empty suits.” Realizing that few people had ever heard of Kline, Maher added that those thinking he might be Jewish are wrong, then pointed out that might have made him more interesting.
Truth is, Kline’s blandness is what made him so appealing as a representative of dysfunctional government. “He’s one of those silent threats you never see coming,” Maher said. “Ebola, Isis, John Kline…One of the whores and sellouts that keep this town running.”
Maher’s language is brutal, and funny, and all too true as he takes aim at Kline’s exalted position of chairman of the education committee, declaring he “has done more to keep twentysomethings in their parents’ basements than anyone else alive.” He calls Kline the champion of for-profit colleges, which have a dropout rate “worse than celebrity rehab.” They’re not real colleges, Maher says: “They’re scams because John Kline is bought and paid for by the very people he is pretending to regulate.”
Like most of his Republican colleagues, Kline voted 54 times to repeal Obamacare, he’s against raising the minimum wage, he’s against stem-cell research, against Planned Parenthood—“and he voted to deny funds to even study climate change,” Maher said on his show. This is serious stuff if you’re a Democrat, and if you’re not, they’re fighting words. Maher makes his living making fun of politics so whatever happens, it will be entertaining. Obermueller is not considered a serious challenger. Kline easily defeated him two years ago, winning by eight points. Maybe in comedy it’s the point spread that matters.