Parsing Jesse: A handicappers’ guide to whether Ventura will enter the Senate race

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Will he or won’t he? There was nothing tentative-sounding about Jesse Ventura’s ostensibly hypothetical comments to NPR earlier this week concerning Norm Coleman, Al Franken, and the US Senate race (previous item). But a couple of days’ worth of conversations with veteran Jesse-watchers has me believing that the question is still undecided, however much the NPR story may have sounded like a teaser for a campaign that was already an accomplished fact.

I’ve composed a laundry list of some of the factors Ventura will likely be weighing this weekend. There are more items on the don’t-run side of the ledger, but you shouldn’t suppose they’ll necessarily carry more weight. I haven’t talked to anyone with a strong inclination as to what he’ll do, and I don’t have one either. Two things to remember about Ventura as you read it: He’s a lot more careful and deliberate than you think. And he won’t get in unless he feels sure he can win.

WHY HE MIGHT

He misses having a public forum where the spotlight always shines. I don’t think I need to explain.

He’s genuinely impassioned about the war. If you watch Jesse’s appearances of late on the cable networks–be it Larry King, Hannity & Colmes, Bill Maher, anywhere–it’s clear this is the issue that has him most inflamed, and one reason he’s anxious to unseat Norm Coleman, who he deems a stooge of the Bush administration on war policy. Then, too, there’s the fact that…

He really seems to hate Norm Coleman. Among the numerous unflattering traits Norm Coleman has learned to conceal better through the course of his career, he has always been first-rate at projecting condescension and contempt, and I suspect Jesse felt the heat of it through much of the 1998 gubernatorial race that pitted them against each other.

He’s here, isn’t he? As the July 15 filing deadline approaches, Ventura is not soaking up rays at his other place in Baja. His feet have carried him back home, nearer the registrar’s office; he spoke with MPR reporter David Welna last Sunday in a “suburban St. Paul” parking lot.

WHY HE MIGHT NOT

Big negatives. Every newspaper and wire story that followed in the wake of the NPR report mentioned that a recent Rasmussen showed Ventura starting with 24 percent of the vote if he entered. That’s a significant number if you’re Coleman or Franken and you’re examining spoiler scenarios. But if you’re Jesse Ventura and you’re looking to win, another number that’s equally important is your disapproval rating, which measures the share of the electorate you’re unlikely to win over. Jesse’s disapproval number was 62 percent, including 38 percent “very unfavorable.” Ventura could chip away at the 62 percent, probably, but it’s a hellish hill to climb.

He’s got a pretty sweet life at this point. It’s a bohemian dream, and it’s easy to see why a guy like Jesse Ventura would be especially loath to give it up. Think about it. Working-class kid from Minneapolis enters the military at an age and in an era when great flights of hedonism and self-discovery are so in vogue they practically seem a birthright of his generation. He misses that part of his youth. Then, 30-plus years later, he gets a do-over. He moves with his family to Baja, where he gets to try on styles, ideas, and identities without any worry for what he’ll do out in the real world. It’s as if he got to save his college years for retirement.

He hates the news media. The best-remembered run-in between Ventura and the press involved a series of 2002 news reports claiming that his son, Tyrel, had been using the governor’s mansion to throw parties for his friends. It’s hardly where the animus started. For perspective’s sake, we should point out that this was more than two years after Ventura complained that he should be paid for the use of his likeness in a St. Paul Pioneer Press cartoon strip, and more than a year after he proposed that each member of the Capitol press corps wear a badge identifying him- or herself as an “Official Jackal.” (MPR has a handy timeline.)

Minnesota news media hate him. Big surprise. And a big problem insofar as one of Ventura’s main potential advantages is his ability to command a lot of free media. The national MSM still love Jesse, but he’d need to make nicer with a Minnesota press he’s spent the past several years vilifying in a rich variety of outlets.

The war is his main issue. And good for him, especially as we see war coverage so drastically reduced in the mainstream press. But economic circumstances at home have obviously made it much tougher to get coverage by attacking the war, and Jesse’s not likely to stay interested if he can’t stay with his strength.

He can’t win a hero’s victory in this race. It wasn’t hard to see how deeply Ventura exulted in the absolute unlikeliness of his successful run for governor. How will he feel about jumping into a race where the same media class that treated him as a joke then is calling him a serious force and possible contender? Especially when he knows that his bete noir Coleman is much more seasoned and has an incomparably greater war chest than in 1998.