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Newt Gingrich and Rep. Sonny Bono

Source: Getty

He Got Your Vote, Babe

Sonny’s Savvy Politics

Why you should care

Clay Aiken isn’t the first marginally talented singer to run for Congress. But he faces obstacles that even Sonny Bono didn’t have to surmount to win his House seat 20 years ago.

Sing it with me: “So let them say your hair’s too long, I don’t care, with you I can’t go wrong.…”

Cher on left and Sonny on right in 60's outfits

Source: Getty

The line from Sonny and Cher’s kitschy ’60s anthem “I’ve Got You Babe” could easily have doubled as a campaign slogan for Salvatore Bono — who put the “Sonny” in Sonny and Cher — when he ran first for mayor of Palm Springs, Calif., and then for a seat in Congress. Each time, Bono (who died in a skiing accident while in office in 1998) shook off the haters and the establishment’s doubts.

Long before political pundits had American Idol has-been Clay Aiken to kick around, Sonny Bono’s political aspirations were the laughingstock of the political elite. No one took him seriously during his 1988 mayoral bid or when Mr. Bono went to Washington after winning the 1994 race for Southern California’s 44th District (or, for that matter, in his failed 1992 Republican primary campaign for the California Senate). But in the words of Meatloaf, another oft-mocked singer, “Two out of three ain’t bad” — especially for a guy best known as the kooky sidekick to his much more talented (and much taller) ex-wife Cher.

However, had pollsters and prognosticators taken a closer look at Bono’s success in the entertainment industry, they might not have written the guy off so fast. Bono proved early on that what he may have lacked in talent, he more than made up for in business savvy, cannily riding Cher’s coattails to musical stardom and their hugely popular 1970s TV variety show.

That same shrewd marketing sense reappeared some 25 years later when Bono, out of the music industry and on to his fourth wife, had settled down with his young family in Palm Springs. Frustrated by city regulations that hindered his efforts to open a restaurant, he decided to run for mayor as the ultimate black sheep. Bono masterfully spun those low expectations in his favor, promising to be the outsider the city needed to clean house and reinvent itself.

Sonny on floor as rest of family dressed in Gi's practicing kicks

Source: Corbis

Sonny Bono watches his wife Mary (far right), his son Chesare Elan, and his daughter Chianna Maria practice martial arts, 1995.

Six years later, he pulled the same trick, chalking up solid victories in the GOP primary and the general election to join Congress as part of Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Republican “Revolution” — 20 years ago this fall.

”Sonny’s intelligence was underestimated,” recounted Norman King, a colleague of Bono’s at Palm Spring’s City Hall, in a C-SPAN feature on Sonny’s political career. ”His biggest contribution was to problem solving.… At the right moment, he could say something, and everyone would loosen up and have a chance then to back out of the personal conflicts that had come and work it through.”

So should Clay Aiken take heart in Bono’s example during his run for Congress in North Carolina?

Well, not exactly. Bono had the good sense to campaign in a city and a district very much in line with his own centrist political positions. Regardless of Aiken’s political chops — or lack thereof — he faces an uphill climb running as an openly gay Democrat in a district that voted for 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney over President Obama, 57 percent to 42 percent. And he’s taking on an established Republican incumbent.

In other words, Aiken may want to stick to his singing career. The odds of success are probably better — and yes, we know that’s saying something.

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Meet The Author Emily Cadei

Emily covers government, world affairs, business and sports for OZY. California-bred and D.C. based, she's reported from four of the world's seven continents -- still waiting for a byline from South America, Australia and Antarctica!

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