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The Duggars, ‘Duck Dynasty,’ and the politics of red state reality TV

Willie Robertson (center), of the television show "Duck Dynasty," and his wife Korie Robertson pose for a picture with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) before the State of the Union address on Jan. 28, 2014 at the U.S. Capitol. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

Reality television is engineered for controversy, from housewife catfights and intra-family drama to criminal allegations. Sometimes it bleeds into politics as it did last week when Josh Duggar of TLC's "19 Kids and Counting," resigned from the Family Research Council following allegations of child molestation.

The Duggars, who have had their show since 2008, are politically active, endorsing Rick Santorum for president in 2012 and Mike Huckabee in 2016 -- and both candidates made statements following the allegations. Huckabee called Duggar's actions "inexcusable" but was supportive of how the family handled the situation, while Santorum said he was "disgusted" by the accusations and was praying for the girls.

It's not the first time Republican candidates have had to answer for their reality TV supporters (remember the great "Duck Dynasty" controversy of 2013), and it likely won't be the last. But why does it always seem like Republicans and not Democrats are forced to answer for reality TV stars?

Two reasons jump to mind: 1) the rise of red state reality television, and 2) the wide celebrity gap between the right and the left.

[Do Republicans have a Duggar problem?]

The first reality show families of the early to mid- '00s  were ones like the Kardashians, the Osbournes, and the cast of "The Real Housewives of Orange County." Regardless of their politics (the Kardashian-Jenners have a strong Republican streak, and Orange County is one of the most conservative counties in the state), they were Californians who largely appealed to coastal, liberal audiences. The shows were popular, but for viewers more interested in watching the citizens of middle America than of Beverly Hills and Calabasas, there weren't any options.

That changed when "17 Kids and Counting" debuted in 2008, starring the Duggars of Arkansas.  They were followed by the Thompsons of Georgia in "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo," also on TLC, and the Robertsons of Louisiana in A&E's "Duck Dynasty." MTV's "Buckwild" was about teenagers in West Virginia, and the Palin family even got their own short-lived TLC show, "Sarah Palin's Alaska."

[How we went from "Survivor" to more than 300 reality shows: a complete guide]

The Duggars have now been on television for 10 seasons, as many as "Keeping Up With The Kardashians," and in 2014, "Duck Dynasty" was one of television's top-rated shows, with more viewers than anything on E! or Bravo. The success of this new breed of reality family proved there was an appetite for family-friendly shows set in the heartland. But, the networks have also been accused of reality TV exploitation, broadcasting backwoods America for our amusement and curiosity, and mocking rural stereotypes, something the Daily Beast last week called "hicksploitation."

But the right has largely embraced this new class of reality stars. Huckabee, still, proudly displays the endorsement of Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar at the top of his Web site. The Robertsons were warmly welcomed to the State of the Union address by Republicans as guests of Rep. Vance McAllister (R-La.). And, on Thursday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) celebrated his birthday with a campaign event in Las Vegas with Rick Harrison of "Pawn Stars."

Because of the progressive politics of Hollywood, Republicans have long lagged behind Democrats when it comes to star power. Hillary Clinton has attracted stars, such as Beyonce, Sharon Osbourne, and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen to her fundraisers, and Lena Dunham, 50 Cent, and Kelly Clarkson have already said they're supporting her. 2016 looks to be a repeat of 2012, where the Democrat President Obama was able to book an all-star line up of supporters, including Jay Z, Alicia Keys, and Pitbull, while Mitt Romney only managed Kid Rock and Meatloaf.

But the left doesn’t have the reality show stars the right does. These shows have begun to give Republicans the kind of celebrity endorsements they’ve been missing and is a small step at leveling the field. They come with a risk, as all celebrity endorsements do, and now Republicans are starting to face a problem they don't have all that often: how to respond when their famous supporters behave badly. With the handful of country stars or aging actors that backed GOP candidates in past elections, Republicans didn't typically have to worry about controversies, but now they do, with reality stars being more unpredictable.

But it's a risk politicians are likely willing to continue to make, Republican or Democrat. As long as there are celebrities, there will be some who want to speak their mind about politics and politicians more than willing to accept their endorsement.

Until recently the Duggars were a popular family in the Republican Party. But allegations of sexual misconduct against Joshua Duggar have complicated matters. (Video: Tom LeGro/The Washington Post)