Krystal Ball: From scandal star to professional pundit

September 11, 2011

In October 2010, Krystal Ball appeared on “The Dylan Ratigan Show” on MSNBC to discuss “female politicians and their sexuality” and society’s tendency to portray women as “whores.”

Friday, Ball was back on Ratigan’s show to discuss a less controversial topic — the latest unemployment numbers.

For Ball, those two appearances book-ended a strange year-long journey: from little-known Virginia congressional candidate to infamous Internet sensation to professional pundit, opining on nearly every subject on the news.

Ball has become a fixture on MSNBC, with a freshly inked contract to serve as a “contributor” and go-to “Democratic strategist” on the network. She appears to have a bright future in the world of political media.

Celebrity works in funny ways, and Ball acknowledged she wouldn’t be on the right path now if she had not become famous for the wrong reasons a year ago.

“I don’t think I would have ended up going in this direction,” Ball said, if she had not been the subject of an online controversy. “Because that was what got me on to a lot of these programs and sort of got me in the loop, and then after the campaign was over, they just kept asking me back.”

Portrayed as ‘a party girl’

At this time last year, Ball was a 28-year-old political novice who was running an educational software company with her husband and launching an uphill campaign against Rep. Rob Wittman (R) in Virginia’s GOP-leaning 1st District, which stretches from Fredericksburg to Newport News.

Then risqué photos of Ball emerged on a pair of conservative blogs. Taken at a costume party when she was 22, the pictures show Ball and her ex-husband holding a sex toy.

The story was irresistible to the media: A young, attractive female candidate with a memorable name (her father, a physicist, wrote his doctoral dissertation on crystals) is undone by suggestive photos and the perils of the Internet.

Her candidacy, which had drawn almost no attention, suddenly moved into the national spotlight.

Ball’s response was quick and forceful: She blamed the story on sexism and a double standard for women who run for office. Instead of a congressional candidate, she lamented in a Huffington Post op-ed, “for millions of people around the world, I am a joke named Krystal Ball, a party girl or a whore.”

According to her official biography, which doesn’t shy away from the photo controversy, Ball’s name quickly became one of the most-Googled terms in the world. She appeared on MSNBC and Fox News.

Embarrassing as the photos were, Ball said she does not regret the incident.

“It did give me an opportunity to say something that I thought was really important, so in a way I’m kind of grateful for the opportunity to do that,” she said. “I feel very proud of how we handled it. I didn’t apologize. I didn’t just sort of hide in a corner. I didn’t deny that it was me.”

Ball emerged less damaged than two other politicians who faced scandals related to lewd photos: Reps. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) and Christopher Lee (R-N.Y.) both quit Congress under pressure after embarrassing snapshots made the news.

And from a raw political perspective, the controversy probably helped her campaign. “Just the number of people who became aware of the race and learned that there was a congressional race going on in the district . . . I would say it was almost certainly a net positive,” Ball said.

It didn’t help enough — Wittman trounced Ball by 29 percentage points, in an election cycle where Republicans racked up victories all over Virginia and the country. But by then Ball was already launched toward her next career.

Primed for punditry

Waiting for a recent appearance on Ratigan’s show, Ball sat in a narrow, black-walled room staring at a camera and a blinking red light. Behind her was the primary reason multiple networks rent space at 400 North Capitol Street: a window with a picture-perfect view of the Capitol dome.

After her campaign ended, Ball appeared several times on Fox, often as the Democrat on a panel filled with Republicans. She also went on CNN. Now she has a paid deal with MSNBC and is essentially on call for that network.

Ball, her husband and their 3-year-old daughter spend the bulk of their time in New York, close to MSNBC’s Manhattan headquarters. She no longer has a house in Virginia, though she can stay with her parents back home in King George, 20 miles east of Fredericksburg, when she’s in the area.

Her recent booking was about the latest jobs numbers, but Ball also has to be comfortable talking about anything from Libya to labor policy. On Friday, she got the day’s topics roughly two hours before the show, giving her time to scroll through a few articles on her pink-cased iPhone.

“You pretty much have to be prepared to talk about whatever the news is,” she said. “Running for Congress was good practice for that.”

Ball’s sole political experience is her congressional bid. She has never advised, been employed by or volunteered for any other campaign or elected official. But the more she appears on television identified as a “Democratic strategist” and political expert, the more she is known as one.

Ball has some clear expertise on at least one topic — damage control. When Weiner became engulfed in scandal over lewd pictures of himself sent via Twitter, Ball wrote a piece for the Atlantic offering him advice: “Get it all out. Everything. All at once. Answer every question that is remotely related to the issue from every legitimate, non-tabloid news outlet.”

A future candidate

Ball is definitely not running for Congress or anything else in 2012, but the future is less clear.

“I haven’t ruled out another run for office at some point,” Ball said. She doesn’t think her move to New York would imperil her prospects back home: “I’ve lived in the state almost my entire life, so I think if I ever wanted to come back and serve in Virginia, it would be pretty hard to paint me as a carpetbagger.”

Ball has been collaborating with the Women’s Campaign Forum, which supported her during her campaign. She works with the group’s She Should Run program, which encourages young women to run for office.

And Ball is also writing a novel based loosely on her campaign experience, about two female candidates running for office. Will the plot include suggestive online photos? Ball wouldn’t say.

She may still be better known for scandal than for any of her other ventures, but she said she has made peace with her past: “It doesn’t keep me up at night.”

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