Candidates have tough time counting on showbiz for cash

A few weeks ago, a prominent Hollywood liberal activist/fundraiser offered a blunt assessment what Republican Scott Brown’s win in true blue Massachusetts means for Democrats in the midterm elections: “Disaster.”

Politicians from across the country will be walking into this atmosphere of fear and loathing as they tap Hollywood and Los Angeles fund-raising circles in the coming weeks and months, activity that will accelerate as November approaches. This year there are questions as to whether showbiz donors — one of the most reliable and loyal sources of campaign dollars for Democrats — will come through in the same way that they have in previous cycles.

Donors express not only fatigue, exacerbated by the sputtering economy, but frustration and discontent, particularly over stalled health care reform and climate change legislation.

Added to this is the fact that this could be the first midterm election since 1994 in which California voters are likely to have two seriously competitive races at the top of the ticket: The reelection campaign of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and the race to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor. Given that there are urgent needs close to home, that could make it more difficult for out-of-state candidates to withdraw from the Hollywood ATM.

“We just had this enormous election, I want to catch my breath,” says agent Mitch Kaplan, who raised money for an array of candidates in the last cycle. Showbiz, he notes, “used to be known as ‘the wallet.’ The candidates still have to come here, it has just been tradition. But I do think it is going to be much tougher.”

Such candidates as Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, running for reelection; Mark Dayton, running for governor of Minnesota; and Kendrick Meek, running for an open U.S. Senate seat in Florida, all have paid him visits, but Kaplan says he’s more reluctant to face time. “You meet someone and you have to contribute,” he says.

Sim Farar, a major fund-raiser who this cycle is national finance chair for Boxer’s reelection campaign, says of the environment, “It is twice as hard and we are collecting half the money.” He noted that donors are being more reticent to give the maximum amounts, whereas they used to give “with not even a blink of an eye. They are watching their checkbooks, I don’t care if you are the richest person in the country.”

Boxer has held a series of entertainment-centric fund-raisers, including an event last fall at the home of Ron Burkle that featured Vice President Joseph Biden. She was scheduled to attend another event over the weekend at the home of Laurie David, with former vice president Al Gore as a guest.

Others planning visits during the congressional recess this week include Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is scheduled to raise money at the Bel-Air home of prominent Los Angeles attorney Bruce Broillet and his wife, Norah, and, even though he is not up for reelection this year, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who is scheduled at an event Feb. 16 at the home of Jay Sures of UTA.

Even though 2010 will be a difficult environment for Democrats, what hasn’t happened is any kind of shift in the industry’s allegiances: According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the breakdown of showbiz money going to Democrats and Republicans by the end of 2009 was 76% to 23%, almost unchanged from the previous year. (GOP figures have been reaching out to industry conservatives, although they have often been at non-fundraising events, like party chairman Michael Steele’s recent speech to the group Friends of Abe.)

The latest figures also do not reflect any serious drop in fund-raising. The CRP reports that showbiz gave $7.5 million to Democrats at the federal level at the end of 2009. In 2006, the industry gave a total of $15.6 million to Democrats, but that was for the entire midterm cycle.

John Emerson, the chairman of the Los Angeles Music Center and a major fund-raiser, says recent events he’s been involved with — including those for Meek; U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, seeking to retain his seat in Colorado; and Robin Carnahan, seeking an open seat in Missouri — exceeded goals, which were were relatively modest.

“In a midterm election, the focus is on potential pickups,” Emerson says. “It’s easier to do potential pickups than anything else.” He next plans to work on a March event for Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.), who is seeking an open U.S. Senate seat in that state.

In any cycle, a driving force are the hosts of a fund-raising event and their ability to call on friends and associates to come an write checks: In other words, I’ll donate to your candidate if you donate to mine. That is bound to be extra true this year, particularly for candidates who are facing uphill climbs or who are viewed as long shots.

Andy Spahn, the political consultant whose clients include Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, says that the major activity recently has been not so much fund-raising as it is candidates coming through Hollywood donor circles, doing meet-and-greets to try to get on the fund-raising calendar, expected to be especially crowded in the coming months with the sheer number of races in play.

The biggest challenge, however, may very well be in enthusiasm, which even under the best of circumstances probably never could match the 2008 presidential cycle, when Hollywood helped shatter fund-raising records, including one evening where $10 million was raised for Barack Obama and the party. (For his part, Obama is expected to return to Los Angeles for an event in early to mid-spring.) Yet it also will be difficult to replicate the energy of 2006, as the goal then was to retake the House and the Senate, and the onus this time around will be on the party committees to make a compelling case.

Privately, some donors and fundraisers express frustration with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, given that the pitch in the last cycle was that the party needed a filibuster-proof majority. When that threshold was met and yet produced no health care reform or climate-change legislation, the result has been disappointment.

It doesn’t help that the chair of the DSCC this cycle, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), doesn’t have the greatest relationship with Spahn, who is one of the industry’s most prominent fund-raisers. One of Spahn’s signature issues has been the easing of U.S. restrictions on Cuba, and Menendez has been diametrically opposed to such efforts.

As difficult as the terrain looks, however, the Brown win may be the kind of the kick-in-the-pants event that creates a sense of urgency among showbiz Democrats, motivating people as much as it makes them dispirited. “I think those two balance out,” Emerson says.

But the real twist may turn out to be the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Citizens United vs. FEC, which set the stage for a wave of new corporate money into races. If those dollars escalate, that could create extra incentive for industry moguls to write checks to independent committees.

In the meantime, Spahn says he’s warning fellow Democrats and donors not to get caught up in doom and gloom. “If you are thinking the last few months have been tough, you have to remember that it is not a static situation,” he notes. “I always say 10 months is a lifetime in politics, and the midterms are 10 months away.”

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