As you’re reading this, odds are a Democratic operative in Michigan or Washington, D.C., is listening to Kid Rock’s gravelly voice—rapping, shrieking or crowing, depending on the song—and meticulously cataloguing every single offensive syllable. The renegade musician and prospective candidate for U.S. Senate is an opposition researcher’s dream come true: For more than two decades, Robert Ritchie—or Bobby, as he asks people to call him—has written and performed provocative records about, among other things, extravagant drug use, excessive drinking and sexual exploits with prostitutes, strippers and Hollywood starlets. These lyrics are far from hollow. Kid Rock’s hard-partying image is central to his popularity and has been exhaustively documented in media accounts over the years. Political opponents will be digging through more than just his albums, too: There’s the sex tape he starred in, the arrest following a Waffle House brawl, the no-contest plea to charges he assaulted a DJ at a Nashville strip club, the messy divorce from Pamela Anderson. If that weren’t enough, he has offered other forms of ammunition to potential foes in interviews over the years, such as when he told Rolling Stone of his distaste for Beyoncé (“I like skinny white chicks with big tits”) and gave the New Yorker his stance on same-sex marriage (“I don’t give a fuck if gay people get married. I don’t love anybody who acts like a fuckin’ faggot”).
Because of his manifest rebelliousness—the offensive language, the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, the middle finger to polite company—Kid Rock’s tweet last week announcing that he is considering a campaign for U.S. Senate in Michigan was met with predictable contempt from the political class. How dare the foul-mouthed, long-haired, wifebeater-wearing, Jim Beam-swigging, self-described redneck suggest he belongs in the world’s greatest deliberative body? Moreover, critics had immediate cause to call his bluff: The website he tweeted out, www.kidrockforsenate.com, links to a merchandise store hosted by Warner Bros. Records, and Ritchie, who’s gearing up for a fall tour, also just happened to release two new singles from his forthcoming album. Consensus formed at warp speed in the Acela corridor that it’s a money-making publicity stunt, that Kid Rock for Senate should not be taken seriously.
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That might be a huge miscalculation.
Yes, healthy skepticism is warranted: Not a single prominent Republican in Michigan told us they’d heard from Ritchie or his associates about a campaign. Good musicians are great marketers, and Kid Rock has been brilliant in terms of creating and selling a brand. His flirtation with electoral politics could be nothing more than a promotional ploy aimed at rekindling interest in his career—he’s had only one single reach any of Billboard’s charts in the past four years—and boosting his bottom line. And yet this theory doesn’t appear consistent with the man himself: Ritchie, who already boasts a huge and devoted following, has sold tens of millions of albums and amassed what he calls “fuck you money”—enough of it, in fact, that he has given seven-figure sums to charity and capped ticket prices to his concerts at $20 to make them accessible to working-class fans. Meanwhile, he’s earned a reputation in his native southeast Michigan as someone who is earnest when it comes to civic involvement, helping local businesses and headlining major philanthropic events. When Mitt Romney asked for his endorsement ahead of the pivotal Michigan primary in 2012, Ritchie invited him to his Metro Detroit home and peppered him with a list of policy questions, sleeping on the decision before informing Romney the next day he would support him. The two forged an unexpected bond: Romney adopted the patriotic rock anthem “Born Free” as his official campaign song, and Ritchie later praised the former Massachusetts governor as “the most decent motherfucker I’ve ever met in my life.”
None of this guarantees Ritchie will run, but it suggests he shouldn’t be mocked when he says he’s thinking about it—especially now that the media and the left have summarily and sneeringly popped his trial balloon. This same dismissiveness greeted (and motivated) Donald Trump throughout the 2016 campaign, and yes, given that Americans last fall elected a foul-mouthed political novice who was heard boasting on audiotape of grabbing women’s genitals without their permission, it’s worth noting that significant parallels exist between the rock star and the real estate mogul. So if you’re still not taking Kid Rock seriously, here’s why you should: His path to the U.S. Senate is far easier than Trump’s was to the White House.
“Presuming Kid Rock doesn’t get caught in bed with a little boy, or beat up a woman between now and August 2018, he’s going to win the nomination if he gets in,” says Dennis Lennox, a Republican political consultant in Michigan. “I think there’s no question about that. I think he’s the prohibitive favorite if he gets in.”
Trump competed with 16 rivals for the Republican nomination, more than a dozen of whom were established, well-regarded, well-financed campaigners; Ritchie would enter a primary field of three little-known newcomers to partisan politics. Trump was targeted by a national network of influential donors and activists who laughed him off at first, only to mount a desperate scramble to thwart his candidacy once they realized their peril; Ritchie would face little such resistance in a state where primaries aren’t preordained by party bosses. Trump started his run with no obvious base or blueprint for victory; Ritchie would launch a campaign on the strength of his favorite-son status that cuts across socioeconomic boundaries and is particularly resonant with the president’s winning coalition of culturally conservative, populist-minded, blue-collar voters.
The general election is a different story. Debbie Stabenow, the Democratic incumbent, is deeply entrenched after cruising to reelection by 15 points in 2006 and 20 points in 2012. She is affable, well-known and relatively popular around the state. She has more than $4 million in her campaign account, and won’t have to start spending much until after next August’s Republican primary. She is hands-down the Democratic Party’s best politician in Michigan. Stabenow will be very difficult to beat.
But this, perhaps more than anything else, makes the case for Kid Rock: Stabenow has devoured her last two challengers and will almost certainly make it three in a row if Republicans run another traditional campaign. Enter the self-described American Bad Ass. “Some Democrats in D.C. are freaking out because he would scramble the playbook,” says Democratic strategist Joshua Pugh, who has worked numerous Michigan campaigns and was formerly the state party’s communications director. “It would scramble the playbook. But I’m still not concerned if I’m Debbie Stabenow.”
Running for Senate, especially for someone brand new to politics, can be a logistical nightmare: deadlines, disclosure forms, vendor contracts, legal fees, campaign finance regulations. Some Democrats are convinced Ritchie won’t follow through—not because he doesn’t want to, but because he’s touring through November and conventional wisdom says a viable candidate can’t wait that long to get a campaign off the ground. “There’s a wide gulf between qualifying for the ballot and spending your summer greeting voters all across the state while you’re leaving cash on the table all across the country,” says Joe Disano, a Democratic strategist in Michigan. “Campaigning time overlaps very much with the summer touring season.”
And yet others, in private conversations, are clearly anxious. Kid Rock doesn’t need to run a standard campaign; he has nearly universal name-identification that will earn him free media to make up for any lack of traditional ground game. (Sound familiar?) If he runs, some Democrats fear, not only could Ritchie chip away at Stabenow’s impressive coalition of rural, non-college-educated independents and urban, union-friendly Democrats; he alone might prove capable of mobilizing Republicans who otherwise don’t turn out to vote in midterm elections.
“The fact that he’s non-traditional is appealing to a lot of people. Obviously it scares others who want someone more predictable,” says Saul Anuzis, former chairman of the Michigan GOP. “But if you’re going to beat an entrenched candidate like Debbie Stabenow in a purple state, you need to do something different.”
“He’s well-liked in Michigan. He’s a hometown darling. He’s got deep connections to Detroit. He’s done a lot throughout the state,” Anuzis adds. “Anybody who’s writing him off is making a mistake.”
Kid Rock comes from a prideful place. The Motor City. The arsenal of democracy. Motown. Aretha. Seger. Stevie. Eminem. Joe Louis. Hockeytown. The Bad Boys. Detroit’s popular image—grit, swagger, resilience—and the identity derived from it so permeate the region and much of the rest of the state that even those who do not hail from inside the city limits claim a sort of honorary citizenship. It’s how Bobby Ritchie, born into considerable wealth and raised in Macomb County, came to be viewed as a champion for Detroit and therefore a representative of Michigan writ large.
When Ritchie was born there in 1971, Macomb was in the middle of a great tidal shift. Over the previous decade, the county’s population had swelled by 54 percent due to white flight from Detroit, which sits just south of the county on the other side of 8 Mile Road. The new residents, like the old ones, were overwhelmingly white. They were blue-collar workers, many of whom owed allegiance to one of the “Big Three” automakers. They were Democrats and proudly so, this being Macomb, which as recently as 1960 had been the most heavily Democratic suburban county in America. But a transformation was underway, thanks to a combination of the Democratic Party lurching left on cultural issues, backlash over cross-district busing and the rise of racially tinged fears of worsening crime in inner-city Detroit. By 1980, when Ronald Reagan won his first term as president, Macomb was the most Republican suburban county in America.
It was in this Macomb County that young Bobby Ritchie grew up—and where his Senate candidacy would be anchored. Macomb, birthplace to the fabled “Reagan Democrats” of the 1980s, is undergoing another transformation as the population becomes better educated and more diverse, yet it remains home to an outsize number of working-class, culturally conservative voters who are motivated to vote Republican under the right circumstances. (Romney lost Macomb by 4 points in 2012; Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 12 points in the county after winning an eye-popping 48 percent of the vote there during the Republican primary.) Macomb, as well as economically similar swaths of the Interstate 75 corridor—Genesee County, Saginaw County, Bay County, all the way north to the Upper Peninsula—would be Kid Rock Country in a GOP primary, some doubling as decisive battlegrounds in the general election.
If that’s an oversimplification of his appeal, it’s one the musician has played into. Kid Rock’s public persona has been, at different points in his career, that of the chill country boy, the trailer park hoodlum and the street-prowling pimp. But Ritchie’s childhood was one of comfortable plenty. He grew up in Romeo, a small town in Macomb’s rural northwest corner—roughly 24 miles from Detroit’s outermost city limits—best known for its apple orchards and annual peach festival. His father, Bill Ritchie, owned Crest Lincoln Mercury, a successful car dealership in nearby Sterling Heights, and, for a time, served as head of the powerful Detroit Automobile Dealers Association. His mother, Susan, raised the couple’s four children (Bobby was No. 3). The family lived in an immense, 18-room, 5,628-square-foot estate with a five-car garage, three-horse barn, in-ground swimming pool and private tennis court. The Ritchies were known for their raging barn parties, blasting the heartland rock of Bob Seger late into the night.
Yet it was here—ensconced in 97-plus-percent-white Macomb, in a world of privilege and opportunity—that Robert Ritchie fell in love with rap music.
During the late ’80s, Ritchie would drive down to Mt. Clemens—one of Macomb’s only cities with buildings more than a few stories tall, a viable downtown and a black population—or further south to Detroit for basement parties in a rap scene that was literally underground. He was enamored of the DJs and soon became one himself, buying the turntables and speakers with $700 loaned from his parents and money he earned by picking apples.
In the mostly black, mostly urban rap scene of Metro Detroit, Ritchie stood out—his stage name, famously, came from surprised partygoers: ‘Look at that white kid rock.’ His legend grew as he took to rapping, earning late-night airplay in the Detroit radio market with his 1990 breakout hit, “Wax the Booty,” a paean to doggy-style sex. “In conversation, Romeo’s Bob Ritchie is pleasant, bright and insightful,” wrote Detroit Free Press music reporter Gary Graff in February 1991. “As Kid Rock, however, he poses as a foul-mouthed delinquent with a sexual fixation.”
This quarter-century-old observation splendidly captures the dueling personas of Ritchie and Rock. Throughout his rise to superstardom—on the success of head-banging singles like “Bawitdaba” and debauchery-drenched tracks such as “Cowboy” and “Welcome 2 the Party”—observers have expressed surprise, even bewilderment, at discovering an intelligent, articulate, charismatic and even introspective person in real life. At the end of a fascinating 50-minute interview with Dan Rather earlier this year, the former CBS anchor studied Ritchie and told him, “Despite how you present yourself sometimes, knowingly or unknowingly, you run deep, hoss.”
Kid Rock’s stylings have evolved in recent years, his biggest hits being family-friendly singles such as “Born Free” and “All Summer Long.” Some of that owes to maturity and growing older—as does his giving up hard drugs, he told Rather. And yet Ritchie’s continued commercial success reflects the chameleon-like ease with which he has always fit into his surroundings. He hasn’t so much reinvented himself as proved to be totally malleable while maintaining his musical credibility. He was a rapper in the age of Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer, and a country rocker who dueted with Sheryl Crow on “Picture,” one of country’s classic torch songs. He embraced metal rap during the short-lived reign of groups like Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park, and later he went all-in on Southern rock, shamelessly lifting the most memorable riffs by Lynyrd Skynyrd and Warren Zevon and transplanting their melodies to summertime Michigan. Lately, he’s been a sort of walking homage to the Midwestern anthems of Seger, a fellow metro Detroiter. The same man who rapped with Snoop dueted with Hank Williams Jr. He performed in front of a Confederate flag for years before winning an award from the Detroit chapter of the NAACP, the organization’s largest branch in the nation. (After receiving the group’s recognition, the Free Press reported in 2015, Kid Rock ditched the flag.)
Through it all, he came across as utterly authentic even as he was constantly redefining himself.
He hasn’t so much reinvented himself as proven to be totally malleable while maintaining a sense of authenticity.
In Michigan, that’s a central part of his appeal. He’s the hometown celebrity who didn’t leave, even as the economy tanked and the population plummeted statewide. He’s grafted Detroit’s identity onto his own (“We spend our days on the line and our nights in the bars,” sings the millionaire’s son). Where other artists might attract cynicism for hawking $25 T-shirts with a trademarked “Made in Detroit” logo or selling a Michigan-brewed “Badass American Lager,” Kid Rock seems to have earned the benefit of the doubt.
Ritchie gives back to the country: Performances for the troops overseas, on top of his donations to numerous military charities and home-building efforts for a wounded veteran, earned him the “Patriot Award” from Operation Troop Aid in 2014. He is similarly generous in the community—his foundation has given money to, among other groups, a local youth theater, a nature conservancy and the Detroit Historical Museum (where an exhibit is named in his honor). And unlike other beloved local figures—most especially Eminem—he’s highly accessible. Everyone seems to know somebody who met him at a bar or ran into him on the lake or got invited back to his house to hang out. (A Rolling Stone piece from 2015 detailed how Ritchie, while at his property in Alabama, invites over small-town neighbors he meets under various circumstances; he even took three of them to New York City as his “security entourage” so they could see the Big Apple for the first time.) On a random evening in Michigan, locals know you can find Ritchie chatting up guests at unremarkable watering holes in Mt. Clemens or St. Clair Shores, taking in a Tigers game at Comerica Park or even golfing alongside wealthy white-collar executives at Metro Detroit’s most selective country clubs.
In a region long divided along lines of race and class, Ritchie’s equally at home among black Detroiters and the suburban and exurban whites of the surrounding counties. Doubtless this is informed by his own family: Ritchie has a college-aged biracial son, whom he raised as a single father after winning a custody battle in court. Yet in song, Ritchie has also described himself as “a lowlife” who thinks “racist jokes are funny” and questioned in “Amen,” a track on his 2007 album, “How can we seek salvation when our nation’s race relations got me feeling guilty of being white?”
These contradictions and complexities make for an intriguing artist. They represent liabilities for an aspiring politician.
If Ritchie runs, the urgent question will be how he addresses—if at all—his decades’ worth of controversies. For all the excitement generated by his potential candidacy, Republicans cringe knowing it could derail not just his campaign but those of GOP rivals caught up in what could become a circus-like primary. “It’s a legitimate concern. I would see that as Kid Rock’s weakness,” says Wes Nakagiri, a Michigan tea-party activist who first floated the idea of a Ritchie candidacy at this year’s state GOP convention. Nakagiri loves the idea of Kid Rock running as an “outside the box” populist who supports the president, but wonders whether the musician can get away with what Trump did. “How do voters view those things?” he asks. “Do they look past it like they did with Trump?”
If they do, Ritchie will have to reconcile the many versions of himself and find a coherent message. When it comes to social issues, for example, Kid Rock showed his libertarian streak with the comment to the New Yorker about same-sex marriage, and said of Republicans in that same interview, “I think they go too far with some of that pro-life stuff. I just want some nerds watching my money.” However, the singer grabbed headlines—and won plaudits from conservative groups—back in 2000 when he released the song “Abortion,” which tells of a father grieving to the point of contemplating suicide after his unborn child is aborted.
More vulnerabilities will surface as opponents wade through Ritchie’s finances, family life and personal records searching for ways to discredit him. Within a week of his exploratory tweet, the libertarian-leaning Mackinac Center think tank reported that Kid Rock’s brewing company was awarded $723,000 in state incentives in 2009—one year before he released the song “Flyin’ High,” in which he sang, “I ain’t never had to take a handout.” Trivial? Sure. But it’s an example of how granular the dumpster-diving will get. The simple fact that Ritchie has owned homes in at least five states (Michigan, Tennessee, Alabama, California, Florida) is certain to produce discomforting legal disclosures.
Perhaps the greatest challenge will be deciding whether he wants to be Kid Rock or Bobby Ritchie—not for purposes of ballot identification or campaign literature, but rather, the persona he wants to present voters. In the heat of the 2012 election, Ritchie preached the value of bipartisanship by recording—at his own expense—a purposely corny PSA with liberal actor Sean Penn. “There’s nothing wrong with standing up for what you believe in and having an honest conversation with people,” Ritchie told Fox News’ Megyn Kelly in a June 2013 interview. “Sean Penn, he’s a good friend of mine, and we go at it toe to toe all the time, but you know what? We have great conversations, and we have a better understanding of some things, and I think if more people could just have that dialogue—if everybody would just calm down, all right?”
But that inclusive, kumbaya vibe has vanished in the Trump era. Shortly after the 2016 election ended, Kid Rock’s online store began selling tawdry pro-Trump merchandise. One T-shirt showed the electoral map with a key: red states = United States of America; blue states = “Dumbfuckistan.” Another showed a smiling Trump above the words “_onald Trump. The ‘D’ is missing because it’s in every hater’s mouth.”
If Kid Rock’s popularity owes to his ability to straddle cultural fault lines and give everyone a little bit of what they want—rap, rock, country, blues and sometimes all of the above—running for Senate might force him to choose sides in a way that endorsing Romney or Trump never did. That, more than the logistical hurdles or financial sacrifices associated with running for office, might prove a deterrent for the musician who has excelled at being everything to everyone.
If it does not, Kid Rock’s candidacy for U.S. Senate will be the manifestation of the left’s nightmare about what Trump’s election has wrought—and a fulfillment of unwitting attempts at humor. When Zach Galifianakis interviewed Hillary Clinton on “Between Two Ferns” during the 2016 campaign, he asked, “When [Trump] is elected president and Kid Rock becomes secretary of state, are you going to move to Canada?” If that feels eerie, consider that in the music video for his 2001 single “You Never Met a Motherfucker Quite Like Me,” Ritchie opens a newspaper with an all-caps front-page headline: “KID ROCK NEGOTIATES PEACE AGREEMENT.” He then tosses the paper aside with a smirk on his face.
Nobody should be laughing now.