GOP hopefuls still courting showbiz backers
The most common misperception is that Hollywood is bereft of Republicans, making it a waste of time for the now-solidified field of 2012 contenders to court donors and supporters in the land of the left.
But while the celebrity activists, politically active creative types and executives on the right and center-right may be smaller in number than their counterparts, they are not insignificant, and compared with the last presidential cycle, there are ample signs that this time around, they will be better organized and energized.
Just not yet.
So far, Hollywood’s reticence on the right is reflective of the herky-jerky nature of the race itself, where Mitt Romney looks like the front-runner, yet Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and now Herman Cain threaten to make him work hard for the nomination. Romney has garnered the support of such industry execs as Harry Sloan, and Cain has received the high-profile endorsement of comedian and radio host Dennis Miller, while such figures as Vince Vaughn favor Ron Paul. But by and large, industry conservatives have yet to coalesce around a candidate.
Flash back four years ago at this point, and industry Republicans were lining up largely behind Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, who courted coin and endorsements from figures like Robert Duvall, Sylvester Stallone and Jerry Bruckheimer.
By contrast, the present GOP candidates have not been as aggressive in mining showbiz dollars and support. McCain and Giuliani, celebrities in their own right, had long-time Hollywood ties, while few in the current GOP field have that kind of cachet. The ones that do, like Sarah Palin and Donald Trump, teased candidacies but chose not to run.
There’s also a certain wariness in lining up behind a candidate too soon. Giuliani drew politically active supporters like Kelsey Grammer and Jon Voight, but backers watched in disappointment as his late-in-the-game primary strategy fizzled in Florida. On the day he dropped out of the race, in fact, he was to have appeared at a fundraiser at the home of producer Joel Surnow.
“The Republican community in Hollywood is not very much different from Republican primary voters everywhere. It is very much a wait-and-see attitude,” says writer-producer Rob Long. “You are looking at an electorate that really doesn’t feel a need to make a decision. … It is a weird year; I am not sure the Hollywood right has a candidate.”
He adds, “In a lot of ways this is a dream for someone in Hollywood, because it is a long way to the third act, and it’s the longest second act in history.”
When McCain was the nominee, he also rallied industry support, with a high profile fund-raiser at the Beverly Hilton hotel, but his campaign skidded in the fall.
“I think people remember that, and they are treading lightly here,” says producer Craig Haffner. “People don’t like being backed into a decision for something that is out of their control or feel that they have to settle for something.”
Haffner has been backing Jon Huntsman, who ostensibly would have fit the bill as the fiscally conservative, socially moderate candidate industry Republicans like, but Haffner admits to being disappointed in Huntsman’s campaign.
Others are on the sidelines. Voight, one of the more visible figures on the Hollywood right who campaigned for Giuliani and then McCain in the last cycle, plans to endorse whoever the nominee is, but isn’t endorsing yet. “We are all patiently waiting to see who it is going to be,” says his manager, Dorothy Koster. Grammer, who endorsed Giuliani and hit the trail for McCain — and has been upfront about running for office himself one day — nevertheless will not “get involved publicly” in the campaigns, says his spokesman, Stan Rosenfield.
There’s little doubt that, as much as Republicans in the past have criticized Hollywood and liberal excess, they also crave the attention that showbiz support can bring to a campaign. The sheer novelty of a showbiz Republican seems to magnify attention. Mike Huckabee’s enlistment of Chuck Norris for a series of kitschy Web video spots in 2008 certainly helped raise his visibility and perhaps his fortunes in Iowa. And even as McCain chided Obama for his “celebrity” in a spot that linked the Democrat to tabloid creatures like Paris Hilton, the McCain campaign nevertheless sought out young Hollywood support.
Romney has collected more high-profile endorsements than other candidates, but polls continue to show that most Republican primary voters have hardly made their minds up, while such influential figures as Rush Limbaugh question his conservative credentials. The fellowship of industry conservatives known as Friends of Abe, organized by actor Gary Sinise and others, has grown in stature since the last election cycle, but Romney has yet to address the group. Friends of Abe is heavy in rank-and-file industry workers as opposed to executives, and sources say many seem to be taking a hard look at Cain as someone who can better shake up the system. He is expected to address the org in November.
If Romney solidifies his status, the wait-and-see attitude could start to change. While not at the level of Giuliani or McCain, he does have some ties to the biz. His senior strategist, Stuart Stevens, has worked as producer-writer on several TV shows, including “Northern Exposure,” “Commander in Chief” and “I’ll Fly Away.” If Obama is weak in the polls, there are hopes a Romney candidacy could pick off support from Hollywood’s corporate ranks, or at least get them to hedge their bets. The Obama administration has been pushing a key industry issue — protection of intellectual property — and Romney’s campaign has been responsive as well. Andrea Saul, a Romney campaign spokeswoman, says the candidate would “take aggressive action to confront nations that do not protect American ideas and creations.” Other campaigns did not respond to requests for positions on anti-piracy issues.
As great as the ideological gulf may be between the industry’s Republicans and Democrats, they do share something in common when it comes to choosing candidates. Even if there’s hesitancy to jump in now, there’s also a feeling the situation will change with a nominee in place. And for those still dissatisfied by the nominee or fatigued by the process, there’s the evergreen question: Where else are they going to go?