Contrary to popular perception, there are not enough clowns in Congress.
So believes Steve Lough, a Democratic candidate for South Carolina's 5th Congressional District. As a professional clown, he should know.
Yes, an honest-to-goodness clown: the kind with a red rubber nose who throws pies and performs magic tricks. Thirty years ago, Lough graduated from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, and he has toured on and off with the Greatest Show on Earth and a circus in Japan. That's where he met his wife, Rie Sekine, also a clown and now his campaign manager.
One of Lough's bits involves a renegade toupee, a gag that has a real-life historical precedent on the House floor: A congressman once grabbed another's hairpiece during an 1858 brawl over slavery. Lough's specialty, though, has always been juggling. His favorite trick requires balancing on his forehead a six-foot pole, with his hat up on top; he juggles five balls and, at the end, drops the hat from the pole to his head.
For the past 10 years, Lough traveled around North Carolina with an anti-bullying show sponsored by McDonald's. When the program ended in December, he decided to return to his hometown of Camden, S.C., and throw his hat in the ring, so to speak.
"When life gives you lemons, you run for Congress," Lough says.
Whether his career change is a step up or down likely depends on where you sit. But either way, Lough is not exactly new to strange and unexpected transitions. Before enrolling in clown college, he attended Dartmouth College, where he majored in anthropology, played football and wrote a paper on beer pong. (It earned him an A.)
And in any case, the transformation from clown to politician was less abrupt than it might appear, and not only because he juggles in his campaign videos. Over the years, he said, he has gradually become more politically engaged. He volunteered for Barack Obama's 2008 and 2012 campaigns. Sandy Hook, Trayvon Martin and some family connections to gun violence inspired a reading binge on gun policy.
Then, in 2016, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., got him jazzed about spreading the gospel of single-payer health care.
In fact, it's Lough's policy agenda, rather than any clown-phobic voters, that likely presents the biggest obstacle to his winning the seat in November. Or even just his party's primary in June.
Lough is running in a deep-red congressional district. Until last year, it was represented by tea partier and now Trump Cabinet member Mick Mulvaney. Lough insists, though, that "a lot of people don't understand yet that they are Bernie Sanders liberals, too." He believes his campaign can help bring voters to that realization.
"I may not win this election, but if I can get 10 people or 100 people in every single county of South Carolina to Google single-payer health care, or to Google about our gun laws," he says, he'll declare victory.
Lough is not the first person to ask voters to send in the clowns.
In fact, he has some extra-big floppy shoes to fill. In the 19th century, clown and satirist Dan Rice ran for Congress, Senate and the presidency, and since then plenty of other comedians and entertainers have run for office. And although comparisons of politics to a "circus" or of politicians to "clowns" are not usually intended to be flattering, Lough says they should be.
Circus folk like him could teach this Washington sideshow a lot, he says.
The circus is a microcosm of the world, he argues, but one where everyone is welcome and diversity is valued. (Hey, you might even call it the original big tent.) In the circus, Lough worked alongside performers from Russia (who turned him on to Dostoevsky) and South Africa (who taught him about the horrors of apartheid). Recalling the visual of an 8-foot-tall Pakistani colleague standing next to a 33-inch-tall Hungarian, Lough marvels: "My God, you think about how unique and how wonderful creation is."
Circus requires discipline, practice and sacrifice, he says, observing that the high-wire-act performers he has known never, ever drank caffeine. And in a circus, everyone has to learn how to work together, regardless of how different they are or how big their egos may be. Otherwise the whole thing falls apart.
Most important, unlike many politicians, circus folk understand that every person, no matter their background, and every job, no matter how seemingly minor or menial, matters.
"Walking on stilts, your life depends on the floor being clean," Lough says. Consequently: "You develop great respect for people who scoop the poop."
Catherine Rampell's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.