According to late-night HBO comedian Bill Maher, there are only two ways a nincompoop in the House of Representatives could lose a seat. "You literally have to die or tweet a picture of your penis," he tells me on a recent phone call from LA.
American politics can be funniest when they're also the most soul-crushingly depressing, a niche from which Maher has catapulted his 11-year-old show, Real Time, to widespread fame and notoriety. The House of Representatives makes for particularly juicy material: In 2012, when congressional approval ratings dropped to what was then a record low of 10%, Americans somehow reelected 90% of their representatives that same year.
But going into the 2014 midterm elections, Maher's strategy has changed. He isn't only using political angst for bits; he's using a segment of the show to try and directly influence a midterm race. Maher's "Flip a District" project has already begun taking video and social media nominations of representatives his 4.2 million weekly viewers would like to see ousted. The left-leaning Maher has vowed to narrow down a 16-person bracket to one contender and do his best to drive a stake through his or her incumbency.
The segment arrives at a bizarre point in American history, when, post-Citizens United, the Supreme Court has opened the floodgates to the influence of big money in elections. In 2012, the arch-conservative billionaire Koch brothers helped funnel more than $400 million into super PACs and other campaigns attacking Democratic candidates and the president. And even though Maher's been critical of the Supreme Court decisions that have gutted campaign finance laws, he too contributed $1 million to a pro-Obama super PAC in 2012. Those same dark money networks are now gearing up for this fall.
But Maher doesn't see "Flip a District" as a move on par with the influence of super PACs. "It'd be fighting fire with fire if I was pouring $100 million into the midterm campaign, like the Koch brothers," he says. "This is fighting by revealing a person through the media."
There's no shortage of ammunition in congressional politics. "I have been carefully compiling a list for a long time of crazy things politicians say, at least in the last 10 years. Now I don’t know what they were saying in 1890—maybe the Democrats were crazier then—but it’s very, very hard to find the equivalent of what the Republicans say," Maher says. "You cannot find the equivalent of 'legitimate rape.' Or 'fetuses are masturbating.'"
"If you get footage every time [candidates] speak publicly, it's amazing how easy it is to find them caught in the act of being themselves," Maher added.
Part of catching candidates in the act means that Maher will have to develop some ground game—local shows ripping the local candidate, perhaps even an old-fashioned town hall. "I can't visit the state every week," he says. "But we also need someone to go around when the campaign is on and get some footage from the guy every time he speaks. And I think if you do you might find something in there that might be useful. A good example would be—I don't know if you remember the senator from Virginia, George Allen? When he said 'macaca'?"
That doesn't rule out the possibility of adding a Democratic incumbent to the "Flip a District" bracket. Maher himself isn't even registered blue. "But you’d have to show me a district where the Republican running against him is an improvement, and that would be pretty hard to do," Maher says. "Democrats became, unfortunately, a centrist party, and I think, in a lot of ways, a right of center party. And the Republicans just took the short bus to crazy town. So it’s usually not a big decision on who’s the worse one in any given district."
But even when Maher does decide who he wants to target, there's no telling if it'll backfire. When "Flip a District" introduced the now-indicted Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) to the bracket, he used it as a fundraising opportunity. "The liberals are coming," Grimm's fundraising copy read. Meanwhile, Rep. Brent Farenthold (R-Texas), another bracket contender, registered Maher's offense as a "badge of honor," telling interviewers that he thought the attack might help him.
"Unless Maher is able to get him a lot of money, I think I’m okay," Farenthold told KTRH News Radio.
Maher told me he anticipated the backlash. But money is more of a nuanced issue for Maher, who says that after Citizens United he grappled with the idea of actually using his celebrity and cash to try and influence an election.
"This [was] something I've never really done before, to make a million-dollar statement, and trying to get other liberal-leaning people to get in the game," he says. "But I felt like Citizens United changed the playing field so much, and if somebody didn't, early in the campaign, sound the alarm that the game has changed, and it's now being played on the million-dollar level, Obama could get swamped."
By "liberal-leaning people," Maher partly means Silicon Valley. He argues that techies should be more generous to politics, despite the fact that lobbying from the tech world has ballooned in recent years and sometimes joined sides with powerful right-wing groups.
"The place that has the most rich liberals is California, which is why I did it out here. It has the Hollywood people and the Silicon Valley people that needed to sort of have a fire lit under them," Maher says. "Everybody was saying that Obama had it in the bag, because they were living in their little liberal bubble out here in California, and I kept telling them, he doesn't have it in the bag, not by a long shot. He could totally lose this election. And a lot of it's going to come down to money."
Maher isn't deterred by the precedent "Flip a District" might set, or if someone like Bill O'Reilly launches a "Flip a District" campaign of his own. To Maher, that's just how the new democracy works. If future campaigns are increasingly determined by TV entertainers swooping down into congressional districts to grill incumbents of choice, so be it.
But could TV really change American politics?
"I don't think it can change American politics in a big way, but maybe in a little way. If you could just get rid of one congressman, it could be a beacon to other people to get more involved in their country, in their democracy, and somehow not just flip a district, but maybe flip those statistics, which show that so many people are unhappy with Congress in general, but so many return their incumbent to office," Maher says. "We are television, after all. We are not in that league. But we can try."