It’s a reflection of the tenuous times for both Democrats and Hollywood that candidates looking to raise cash from showbiz are taking a much more subtle tack than they did in 2008, when Barack Obama fever was riding high.
Apart from California Sen. Barbara Boxer, who was being toasted Sept. 19 with a Sheryl Crow concert at the home of Magic Johnson, many Democrats hitting the showbiz fund-raising circuit are flying in and out of Los Angeles on the same day, so as to not create an issue out of their mingling with elites in the height of campaign season.
With Democratic majorities in the House and perhaps even the Senate in doubt on Nov. 2, these next few weeks will be critical — and Hollywood, with its leftward tilt, stands to feel the pinch from those seeking coin. Showbiz is still investing heavily in candidates, perhaps more for ideological reasons than for what will affect the business, but the uniform rallying cry that led to Obama’s election two years ago has yet to materialize. At stake are changes that will affect not just the industry, but activism involved in championing various causes.
The ability of celebrities to command the attention of congressional leaders in the majority — like Brad Pitt appearing at a press conference in the corridors of the Capitol with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Whip James Clyburn — is likely to recede if the GOP gains control of the House in the next election. That would also mean that two Los Angeles-area congressmen, Howard Berman and Henry Waxman, would lose powerful committee chairmanships.
“It is not an easy time. People want quick answers to problems that took a long time to develop,” says Ken Solomon, CEO of the Tennis Channel and Southern California finance co-chair for the Democratic National Committee. “This is obviously a critical race, and history is not on our side. Truman won the war but then lost both houses (in 1946). Our job is to make sure that the pendulum doesn’t swing as far as the pundits would make you think.”
While few Hollywood-centric business issues tend to polarize along partisan lines, if the past is any guide, a GOP majority could stifle public arts funding, as well as public broadcasting, particularly with emboldened calls for deficit reduction. Efforts to establish robust net neutrality rules could be stymied, but the industry has been generally split on whether tough open Internet standards are warranted.
The GOP has long argued that its anti-regulatory approach actually would be better for Hollywood, and while some media CEOs have expressed irritation about the Obama economic agenda, they’re hardly ready to bolt.
The most recent federal campaign finance figures from the Center for Responsive Politics reveal that showbiz sources have contributed $14.7 million to Democrats in personal and political action committee contributions so far this election cycle, compared with $5.7 million to Republicans. That 72%-28% split is slightly below the rate of giving to Democrats in the 2008 cycle but well ahead of the spread of the last midterm in 2006.
What’s more, each of the chieftans of Hollywood’s six major studios this cycle have made personal contributions to one or more of the Democratic party committees, including the DNC, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Only one, Ron Meyer, president and chief operating officer of Universal, has given to the potential Republican leadership, with a $1,000 donation in April 2009 to House Minority Leader John Boehner (the prospective next Speaker of the House).
The industry’s PACs, which have corporate interests in mind when allocating contributions, spread the wealth a bit more evenly, with a split of 59% for Democrats and 41% for Republicans. Comcast and their employees, far and away the largest media contributors to candidates, have given 64% to Democrats and 36% to Republicans, the majority of it through the company’s PAC.
These contribution figures, notably don’t include the hottest trend in this election: the seemingly unlimited giving to independent expenditure groups, where Republicans appear to hold the advantage.
News Corp. chipped in $1 million to the Republican Governors Assn., with the company and Rupert Murdoch unabashed in their opinion that
the GOP would improve the nation’s economic outlook. Former Univision chairman Jerry Perenchio, long a prolific Republican donor, gave $1 million to American Crossroads, the independent org led by Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie.
Yet these are still exceptions. As John Feehery, a former Motion Picture Assn. of America official and now a GOP strategist argues, many industry CEOs are betting against their own economic interests, a contrast to the shift in Wall Street support away from the Democrats. “They are leading with their hearts, not their heads,” he says.
As confounding as that may be, Solomon says CEOs in the biz are “very smart business people” who nevertheless recognize that the “pure laissez-faire point of view is not realistic.”
Solomon says, “I think that when you are running a company of a certain size, it is very hard to stand on a soapbox and say, ‘We like regulation.’ That is the natural position of a major corporation. That being said, I don’t think it means that they are going to leave the party and the administration. It is fair to have a difference of opinion.”
“One of the mistakes that the media on the right makes is to be quick to jump on criticism (from CEOs). That doesn’t mean they have left the party and left the president.”
Media entrepreneur Skip Paul argues that many in the industry share the notion that Democratic control is not about a burden on the wealthy but future prosperity, noting Harry Truman’s quote, “If you want to live like a Republican, vote for a Democrat.”
If there is a prevailing sentiment among the industry’s Obama supporters, it is frustration, over a myriad of reasons that often conclude with the inability of the White House and Democratic leadership to articulate a message that can counter the noise of the Tea Party.
Even on a celebrity level the difference is a bit striking: Up to now, the few Hollywood celebrities who’ve commanded attention this midterm have been from the right, people like Janine Turner and Jon Voight, while even homespun figures like Andy Griffith have taken a drubbing in his home state of North Carolina for supporting parts of the Obama agenda. The atmosphere is in part why Barbra Streisand took to her blog to write a piece last week titled “Stop. Think. Breathe.”
“Midterms are always tough. It is never easy motivating donors,” says Lara Bergthold, political adviser to Norman Lear. “I think there has been a lack of enthusiasm. I can’t point to any one thing, but I think there is a slight depression out there. There is such a cavalcade of bad news, economically and environmentally.”
The fervor that was apparent two years ago has diminished. Obama’s first visit to the entertainment community since taking office, a May 2009 event at the Beverly Hilton, seemed to draw just about everyone who is anyone in the business, and the president directed a comment at DreamWorks partner Jeffrey Katzenberg and other moguls and creatives in the room: “If it weren’t for you, we would not be in the White House.”
By contrast, Obama’s appearance at a smaller event at the Hancock Park home of John Wells last month to raise money for congressional candidates may be remembered not for what Obama said but for the horrendous traffic gridlock and irate drivers it produced when Westside streets were closed to make way for the president’s motorcade. If ever there was a metaphor for the mood, that was it.
The hope among Hollywood’s Democratic politicos is that the remaining weeks before the Nov. 2 election will be about motivating those who’ve otherwise been apathetic or disappointed that some of the signature 2008 issues, like a comprehensive climate bill, remain unfulfilled, or that the White House has been slow to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell or even embrace same-sex marriage. The rallying cry is that with a GOP Congress infused with anti-government sentiment, things will be much worse.
Tom Sheridan, a D.C. lobbyist for progressive causes who reps entertainment figures, says the Tea Party has taken from the left’s playbook, using the politics of rage to move a policy forward.
“We have not responded in kind in any like form,” he notes. “There is only so much you can blame on Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck. If we don’t motivate our troops to get out the vote, or sit it out, the consequences of that will be extraordinary.”
Heather Thomas Brittenham, who hosts a monthly cafe for progressive activists at her Santa Monica home, says, “I don’t know if people are frustrated in (Obama) but in the turn of events. Everyone knows he was handed a horrific situation. But no one is going to cut their own throat. The people I know are not that stupid. They are not saying, ‘I am not going to vote because they didn’t pass a climate bill.’?”
Obama’s more recent strident tone in taking on the Republicans — he’s on offense, not defense — is a step forward in rallying progressives, but his efforts at bipartisanship since taking office have unnerved many supporters, reflected in the postings on Huffington Post.
“I will say for myself that I have enjoyed the last couple of days of President Obama, but I wish the last couple of years had matched that,” Bergthold says.
The silver lining, if there is one, is what happened with the GOP majority after their 1994 sweep. Capitalizing on triangulation and Republican obstinacy, President Bill Clinton sailed to an easy victory in 1996 despite divided government.
“People’s enthusiasms tend to rise when you are in an underdog situation,” Bergthold says. “I think the contrast between what we had and what we will have will be even more severe. I actually think it will be motivating for donors, but depressing for voters, because greater gridlock is never good for the country.”
For Clinton, issues like welfare reform created fissures with the Hollywood left, but his ties to the industry were deep enough to maintain a potent donor base in the industry. “That was about loyalty and working at it,” Bergthold says.
Obama is far more hesitant to hob-nob with Hollywood than Clinton was — he stays at the Beverly Hilton on his treks to Los Angeles, not at a personal residence — and he’s not as enthusiastic about the rituals involved in fund-raising.
Save for a very moderate GOP candidate in 2012, or a primary challenger to Obama, he’s at little risk of losing the Hollywood donor.
“First of all,” says Bergthold, “where would they go? Secondly, they didn’t run away from Bill Clinton when things got much, much worse.”
Many activists, particularly those engaged in environmental issues, have turned their attention to the state and local level, and are likely to do so more over the next two years. Even those working on bipartisan international issues, like Darfur and international aid, could face a tougher time getting their voices heard in Washington if the new Congress turns its attention inward. Philanthropic adviser Trevor Neilson, who reps celebrity activists, says, “You move to a bottom-up approach, and you move to city and state solutions.”
As much as progressives may dread Nov. 2, however, it doesn’t necessarily mean Hollywood will again become the favorite conservative punching bag, as a kind of payback for being solidly blue.
The early days of the Obama administration saw a GOP-led attack on a provision of the stimulus bill — a tax break for producers — as a “Hollywood bailout,” in the words of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). But conservative support in the industry has always been significant — and prospective GOP leaders have been courting it this year.
Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), in line to be the House majority leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), in line to be majority whip and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Ill.) are slated to speak to the conservative industry org Friends of Abe, organized by actor Gary Sinise and others, later this month. Last year, Cantor disagreed with Coburn and indicated that he would have supported the tax breaks for the industry on their own.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) is also trying to make inroads in Hollywood. Some of his supporters in 2004 made a point of chiding his opponent, then-House Majority Leader Tom Daschle, for taking so much showbiz money. But in an April visit to Beverly Hills, Thune said the GOP should no longer “cede” the industry to the Democrats and should emphasize a message of limited regulation and entrepreneurship. He also told the Caucus for Producers, Writers & Directors that they should be “willing to roll up their sleeves, get into the arena and make sure your voice is heard in Washington, D.C.”
In 2004, the House GOP leadership, led by Tom DeLay, was in the midst of the K Street project and hardly subtle in its displeasure that the MPAA hired a Democrat, Dan Glickman, to succeed Jack Valenti. But Glickman says there has since been a much greater understanding in both parties of “how this industry is a great jobs producer.”
As a congressman from Kan-sas in 1994, Glickman was swept out in the Republican tide that year. But he’s not writing off the Democrats’ prospects this year just yet. While his defeat in 1994 came as a surprise, many more lawmakers this fall are braced for tough battles. “As one general said, to be forewarned is to be forearmed,” Glickman notes.
No matter what happens, even a slimmer majority is unlikely to give much space for sweeping legislation, or the kind of excited anticipation that greeted Obama when he came into office.
There’s a reality check about to set in, a certain level of pragmatism that’ll supersede ideological hopes. If hopes haven’t come down to earth, they are about to.
Says one industry activist, “At some point you have to realize that Martin Sheen is a great character on TV, but that’s not a realistic president.”
Here’s a rundown of the most competitive congressional races that are drawing Hollywood donor dollars, based on figures from the Center for Responsive Politics and the Federal Election Commission.
California: Barbara Boxer (D) vs. Carly Fiorina (R)
Anticipating a nail-biter of a race somewhere down the road, Boxer has for years been amassing a war chest, with $711,612 collected from industry donors, including sums from events at the homes of Ron Burkle and Tom Rothman and a long list industry backers including Barbra Streisand, Hugh Jackman and Ron Howard. By comparison, Fiorina’s showbiz support has been scant. Her donors include Burt Sugarman.
Nevada: Harry Reid (D) vs. Sharron Angle (R)
Hoping to avoid the fate of Tom Daschle in 2004, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is fighting off a challenge from Sharron Angle. Reid has made multiple trips to raise $436,250 at industry functions, including events hosted by Haim Saban and a CEO-heavy list of supporters including Michael Lynton, Alan Horn and Bob Iger. Angle’s support has been negligible.
Colorado: Michael Bennet (D) vs. Ken Buck (R)
Bennet, the appointed senator from Colorado, is a former finance executive for Philip Anschutz, but his tenure as Denver schools chief has helped him draw education reform-minded industry donors, including Casey Wasserman, Chris Silbermann and Eric Paquette. He’s slated for a Sept. 20 event at the home of Martin Shafer and Carol Fuchs. He’s raised $187,000 from the showbiz sector, compared with Buck’s $12,400.
California: Mary Bono Mack (R) vs. Steve Pougnet (D)
Mack has drawn more support from showbiz than any other 2010 Republican candidate — $121,050 so far — in part because of the legacy left by her late husband, Sonny Bono, who was elected during the Newt Gingrich wave of 1994. Although in a GOP-resurgent year Mack has a good chance of retaining her House seat, she faces a strong challenge from Palm Springs mayor Pougnet, who has collected contributions from David Geffen, Bruce Cohen and Nancy Sinatra. She’s drawn from Gary Sinise, Mary Hart, Philippe Dauman and Brad Grey.
Florida: Marco Rubio (R) vs. Kendrick Meek (D) vs. Charlie Crist (I)
Recent polls show Rubio leading, but the dynamics are different in a three-way race. With just over $100,000 raised so far from Hollywood, Meek has drawn contributions from J.J. Abrams and Katie McGrath and Clarence Avant.
Illinois: Alexi Giannoulias (D) vs. Mark Kirk (R)
This is one of the few races where both candidates have made strong appeals to the entertainment biz. With the aim of keeping Barack Obama’s former Senate seat in Democratic hands, Giannoulias has drawn support from Ken Solomon, Tom Rothman, Stacey Snider and Tom Hanks, while Kirk, who trekked to L.A. for an April event, has garnered Jon Voight, Lionel Chetwynd, Bruce Ramer and David Zucker.
Note: Totals are based on a CRP analysis, and may not include contributions from spouses or overlapping professions, like entertainment attorneys.