Hollywood’s resurgent Republicans

Is this election the second coming of H'wood's GOP activists?

Hollywood conservatives have been making a lot of hay lately. A recent Tea Party event in Beverly Hills, led by Pat Boone, drew several hundred people. A cable venture, the RightNetwork, recently launched with backing from Kelsey Grammer. Regular meetings of the semi-secret org Friends of Abe have been able to draw many younger conservatives. And while a smattering of celebrities are trying to bolster Democrats in what may, in the end, be a death march to Election Day, it’s entertainment figures from the right who’ve commandeered media attention.

“On this part of the spectrum, it is stronger than it has ever been,” says writer-director Lionel Chetwynd, a longtime industry conservative whose involvement stretches back three decades.

What is uncertain is whether that enthusiasm and renewed energy on the right will translate into parity among industry partisans, even if it leads to an electoral rout on Nov. 2.

Democrats still enjoy a lopsided advantage when it comes trolling for Hollywood money, with the most recent figures showing that the rate of giving to Republicans is even lower than it was in the last midterm in 2006. And, warranted or not, Hollywood conservatives still express fears of speaking out, whether to avoid shouting matches at dinner parties or for fear of losing out on work.

Dreams of a level playing field anytime soon are probably just that — dreams.

Talk of parity is nothing new, says writer-producer Rob Long, a conservative voice in the business. Hollywood Republicans have been touting seismic shifts in the biz since the GOP’s Clinton-era takeover of Congress.

But, reminds Long, “It is a Democratic town. I think it becomes more Democratic when there is something to oppose.

He adds, “The rule in American politics is nobody wants to defend the party in power.”

Hollywood’s political stripes have leaned left for decades, enough to inspire an oft-repeated quip that “Hollywood Republican” an oxymoron.

In truth, conservatives have for some time made up a small yet significant chunk of those politically engaged in the industry — enough to command the attention of party leaders in Washington.

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has forged ties with Chetwynd and producer Craig Haffner, among others, often to highlight the importance of showbiz and the arts in the economy. Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) raised money at one of the few Hollywood-centric events for a GOP candidate this year in his race for Barack Obama’s old Senate seat.

And there’s ample evidence for the adage that showbiz liberalism ends at the studio gates. How else could Sarah Palin swoop into town and leave with a multimillion-dollar deal for a new TLC series?

If history is any guide, however, the dynamics aren’t going to change much during or after the current electoral cycle.

The election of Clinton in 1992 gave birth to the Wednesday Morning Club, a regular meeting of industry conservatives started by Chetwynd and David Horowitz that soon became an enclave for center-right industry politicos in the wilderness, and a must-stop for Republicans on the national stage. It perhaps reached its zenith in 1999, when then-Texas governor George W. Bush appeared and made his first speech as a presidential candidate to a crowd that crossed party lines, including figures like Oliver Stone.

At the time, conservatives spoke of an effort to “normalize Republicans” in Hollywood. “Get with the program, Oliver (Stone) and Barbra (Streisand),” declared Buzz magazine in 1996. “Thanks to a group called the Wednesday Morning Club, conservatives are coming out of the closet.”

A high-profile fund-raiser for Bush at the home of Terry Semel rivaled some of the more lavish Democratic fetes of recent years, and the Hollywood ATM was dispensing cash more evenly: In the mid-1990s, almost 40% of all industry money was going to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Compare that to this cycle, where it’s just 28%.

What happened was a divisive election in 2000, a very brief period of unity after 9/11 (a time when Karl Rove addressed studio and union chiefs), followed by the war in Iraq.

Politics became polarized once again, to the point where many industry conservatives complained that they had to be judicious about showing support for President Bush.

That played out in the presidential race of 2008, as Hollywood divided between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton but eventually rallied largely to the Democratic ticket. John McCain drew a sizable chunk of money from showbiz, but his campaign was beset by disorganization and struggled to come up with or convince younger personalities to hit the trail on the candidate’s behalf.

Nevertheless, even with a Democratic wave looming, industry conservatives were building up a new org called Friends of Abe, with Gary Sinise and others leading the effort, and major gatherings at the homes of Grammer and Patricia Heaton and on David Murdock’s Ventura Farms. In the past two years it, too, has drawn national Republican leaders, most recently the conservative “young guns” — Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy. Michael Steele, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, spoke earlier this year, but earned lukewarm reviews. But the group’s mission, at least at the outset, has been as a fellowship, not a fund-raising entity. It also adheres to a key rule: no press coverage.

The org is not as secret — some members wear “Friends of Abe” buttons — as much as it is anonymous, in the same way that a 12-step meeting is. By being under the radar, the implication is that conservatives need a place where they can feel free to exchange ideas without fear of losing out on work.

The idea that Hollywood’s leftward bent has so marginalized and drowned out conservative voices is provocative enough to have inspired a kind of cottage industry of pushback.

Big Hollywood, the website launched by Andrew Breitbart in 2009, maintains an almost obsessive interest in all things liberal about the biz, chronicling and commenting on its excesses and, when it can, doing some muckraking. A story charging that the communications director of the National Endowment for the Arts was trying to politicize the org’s agenda led to the director’s resignation. But a piece that accused the Obama administration of infiltrating primetime via the Entertainment Industry Foundation’s campaign for service and voluntarism largely fell flat.

“There is no doubt that there are some people for whom conservative political views are an obstacle, in the sense that they are unlikely to put such a person on their ‘white list,’?” says Chetwynd, who along with Roger Simon does a regular video segment called Poliwood, for Pajamas Media.

Chetwynd doesn’t call it a blacklist but a matter of reality of obtaining employment in a hyper-competitive industry.

“But there is less of that, I think,” Chetwynd says. “And also the younger generation of showrunners and directors are less ideologically vehement. It is better if you are liberal and you can boast about that and talk about that and make an icebreaker in an interview. And if you are conservative, you better keep your mouth shut.”

The ability to network is also a factor: You’re far more likely to run into industry decisionmakers at a Democratic event than a Republican one. “The jobs fair part of politics in Hollywood should never be ignored,” Chetwynd says.

But while fears of missing out on work opportunities persist, such concerns are seemingly belied by the experience of prominent talent whose careers have kept humming along. If there is any common thread that underlies hiring decisions in Hollywood, it is this: Can you make money?

Some of the most enduring stars who lean to the center or to the right, such as Clint Eastwood, keep working. Jon Voight, who has addressed Tea Party rallies and even accused Obama of having “promoted anti-Semitism throughout the world,” followed up a regular role on “24” with one on the short-lived “Lone Star.” “Wheel of Fortune” host Pat Sajak more
genially comments on such things as taxes and race relations in online blog posts — most recently an item wondering if it was a conflict of interest for public employees to vote on laws they stand to benefit from — but that hasn’t hurt his gameshow gig. And Chuck Norris’ embrace of Mike Huckabee during the 2008 campaign undoubtedly gave him a new dose of (kitschy) cachet.

Moreover, as much as there is a greater sense of organization among industry conservatives, they do not march in lockstep any more than liberals do.

Quips writer-producer Long, “I still don’t think there is, or ever should be, an organized political arm of Republicans in Hollywood. That would be a sign of the apocalypse.”

But such an evolution might take further root over the next couple of years.

Potential presidential candidates, like Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), already are courting various industry backers, while Grammer and Voight turned out for Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s (R-Minn.) launch of his leadership PAC. And Palin has proved that pop culture and politics can create a potent mixture, something he undoubtedly will capitalize on should she get in the race.

While the Tea Party has excited conservatives, it has in many ways frightened the GOP establishment. Even if the GOP scores big gains, its success doesn’t necessarily mean unity for Hollywood Republicans.

Chetwynd, for one, changed his voter registration from Republican to independent, and he’s given to Tea Party orgs rather than the GOP itself.

“In Hollywood there are probably, on balance, fewer people who identify as Republican, but an enormously larger number who identify themselves as conservatives,” Chetwynd says. “The new movement is not a party movement.”

He says that as the Tea Party movement has spotlighted the economy, government spending and government intervention, rather than social issues, its tent will get bigger. Among industry conservatives, many have a libertarian streak, and moderate or even liberal stances on social issues like abortion and gay rights. (Among the other prominent conservatives, for instance, is Marc Cherry, the openly gay creator of “Desperate Housewives.”)

“If this election is a landslide for the Republicans, and Republicans don’t respond by enacting an agenda of this movement, they will go the way of the Whigs,” Chetwynd says. “They will have to work on that agenda or they will disappear.”

Another view comes from Boone, who remains a social conservative and is staunchly pro-life and opposed to same-sex marriage. He dubbed the Tea Party event, organized with neighbor Josephine Rescigno, a gathering of “faith, freedom and family.” And he warns that “people will take advantage of our liberties” and that the country “depends on the morality of its citizens.”

Yet he downplayed social issues at the event.

“I think the political dictum is, ‘It’s the economy, stupid,’?” he says. Boone is a registered Republican, but considers himself “more of an independent,” and says that he was even “astounded by some of the things that the (Bush) administration did” — as well as the GOP’s actions — when they were in power.

“But I have seen more and more people I know in the entertainment business who have always voted for the Democrats really horrified with what is going on,” he says.

Also speaking at the rally was Victoria Jackson, who said, as she has elsewhere, that there is a “Communist in the White House.”

The comment may have struck some as “out of line,” Boone says, but he notes, “It is a Tea Party. That means people can come together and express what they feel. There are going to be statements and positions that are over the top. A majority may not be in agreement with them, but at least they can speak out.”

Others see the coming midterms as a turning point.

“Since when is ‘change’ a liberal word?” asks Sam Haskell, the head of the Miss America organization and the former television topper at William Morris. “While I don’t think the percentages (of Democrats to Republicans) change much in Hollywood, I do think there will be greater percentages of people taking a look at what is going on and how they can make it better.”

Says Haffner, “I would really hope that this gives us an opportunity to take a breath and for everybody to go, ‘OK, let’s remember what we are all here for.’ … My hope is that (the election) sends a message to everybody to remember where we are and to see if we can pull it together.”

Distill it down and you have change and hope.

That has a familiar ring, doesn’t it?