It’s Probably Not a Good Idea to Underestimate Kid Rock

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Kid Rock. Photo: Mike Coppola/Getty Images for CMT

On the surface, Kid Rock running for Senate against Debbie Stabenow in 2018 looks like a fool’s errand, and it doesn’t get much better beneath the surface. Stabenow, the senior senator from Michigan, holds the advantage of incumbency: She won her office during the 2000 elections and has held it ever since. After eking out a win in 2000, Stabenow was reelected in 2006 and 2012 by comfortable margins of 15 and 20 percent, respectively. Midterm elections all but always swing toward the party that doesn’t hold the presidency, and Stabenow’s Democratic party will not hold the presidency in 2018. Furthermore, the man who currently is president seems to be particularly well-suited to mobilizing voters against him, as various special elections this year across the nation have demonstrated. Donald Trump is a very unpopular president, and it’s all but guaranteed that Kid Rock, who has gone out of his way to align himself with Trump, will be fighting an uphill battle.

Then again, the very fact that Trump is president at all shows that holding the high ground, though nice, is hardly an insurmountable advantage. Kid Rock is a long shot, but that hardly means he has no shot. As with Trump, name recognition goes a long way. Hundreds of millions of people know who Kid Rock is, and millions of them are Michigan residents eligible and willing to vote for him. As with Trump, an unknown but significant bloc of voters is open to voting for a celebrity who represents himself as bucking the system. However one defines it, the system is in terrible shape, and it’s Trump’s system, but scapegoats for failure still abound, and Congressional Democrats have an approval rating even lower than Trump’s. Kid Rock’s lack of political experience is a selling point no less than a demerit, and his absence of a prior record in office shouldn’t conceal the fact that, as a diamond-selling pop musician, he has a gift for crafting punchy slogans and keeping an audience in thrall. Though he’s fallen from the prominence he commanded in the Y2K period, he still maintains a loyal fan base that’s kept him comfortably afloat in an industry facing dire times.

As New York’s own Ed Kilgore accurately notes, Rock’s libertarian rhetoric of simplifying law codes, tax codes, and health care has an uncommonly high hat/cattle ratio. But simple messages, delivered frequently and repeated with enthusiasm, help win elections far more than fact-checking and bet-hedging. The Michigan Senate election is Stabenow’s to lose, but if she and her party fail to offer clear policy prescriptions (Medicare for all being an obvious example) of their own, it’s possible, if not quite plausible, that she could lose it.

Of course, a lot of other things would have to happen to bring Rock into striking distance, but nothing is certain, and the impossible has become a regular occurrence. Terrorist attacks and war declarations have been known to alter the usual electoral logic: Despite George W. Bush holding the presidency, the 2002 midterms tilted Republican thanks to 9/11 and the bombing of Afghanistan. In a time when even the week ahead is beyond prediction, there’s no way to be clear what the world will be like in November 2018. Only once Kid Rock isn’t sworn in as a senator in 2019 will it be certain that Kid Rock will not be a senator, and maybe not even then — he’s only 46 right now, and who knows how long Stabenow, who will be 74 once her presumed fourth term ends, can remain in office. It seems unlikely that Rock will go away, even if he loses. And win or lose, what happens to him matters. So long as he significantly narrows Stabenow’s margin of victory relative to 2012, his run can be taken as proof that Trump-style barnstorming is a viable election strategy that may well outlast candidate Trump himself.

And misreadings of Trumpian campaigning, if the responses to Rock’s campaign announcement are any indicator, seem likely to outlive Trump as well. Whatever Kid Rock’s vote total (assuming he clears the Republican primary) in the general election may be in 2018, the bulk of it will come not from the trailer parks Rock habitually plays to in his music videos and lyrics, but from the reputable suburbs which form the cornerstone of Republican power before and after Trump’s campaign — suburbs to which, incidentally, Rock is native. For all of Rock’s dirtbag posturing, the artist himself was raised in an affluent household of precisely the sort most likely to benefit from the libertarianism he’s currently campaigning on and least likely to suffer from the bellicose nationalism he’s always professed. (The ex-superstar who actually hails from the poor, white working class is Eminem, who, for the record, despises Trump.)

Looking back, Rock’s music career gives proof to a canny sense of genre and demography. His original explosion into prominence with Devil Without a Cause was self-engineered, the product of a prolonged period of refinement (no other word for it) of his sound and live act. Though Devil was released on a major label, its success owed little to the industry and much to Rock’s capacity for networking and self-promotion, honed over the course of nearly a decade’s worth of dealings with indie and major labels. As the rap-rock wave subsided, the artist would smoothly manage his own transition from nü-metal-adjacency to the country–Southern–classic-rock niche he occupies today. America’s major music labels and the major political parties find themselves in a similar position: Though still dominant as institutions, their ability to dictate preferences to a mass audience has drastically declined. Like Kanye last year, Rock is a pop star keen-sighted enough to perceive this disparity between what the political system demands and what the people want, and egotistical enough to attempt to bridge the gap with his personality.

Even if it’s not good politics, it’s certainly good business. Running for office in an election destined to be a referendum on Trump is a surefire means of raising one’s profile, personally and musically. (Probably the most intriguing aspect of Rock’s campaign rollout is its music-business aspect: “I have recently worked out a unique deal with BMG, Broken Bow, CAA and Live Nation to release music ON MY TERMS. Like politicians write books during their campaigns, I’m planning on putting out music during mine […] It’s not a hoax, it’s a strategy and marketing 101!”) Rock may be wrong, but he’s not stupid. It’s easy enough to mock him, but we tend to underestimate those we mock, and, in the wake of Trump’s election, who can afford to underestimate anyone? It’s crazy for Kid Rock to be running for senator, but for his opponents now to double down on squeamishness and condescension instead of offering voters policy changes that clearly benefit them seems even crazier.

It’s Probably Not a Good Idea to Underestimate Kid Rock