Obama SuperPACs bank on Hollywood

Donations fueled by citizen concerns, not biz interests

Speaking to reporters gathered at the Television Critics Assn. press tour recently, David Geffen was asked about big money in politics: “I think it’s awful and damaging to the country,” he said.

Clearly, Sheldon Adelson he is not. Geffen and a host of other wealthy progressives across the country have no plans to donate to SuperPACs, the ostensibly independent spending committees that have already altered the contours of this presidential race.

On the right, groups seeking to defeat President Obama are soaking up as much as eight-figure pledges that take full advantage of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which permits advocacy ads from outside groups at all stages of a campaign. On the left, there’s still consternation over a system they abhor.

Showbiz also is one of the few real industry bases of wealthy liberals, something Bill Maher often points out when talking about the $1 million he donated to the pro-Obama SuperPAC Priorities USA Action, in part to trigger copycat giving. Figures like Steven Spielberg, Haim Saban, Chelsea Handler, Morgan Freeman and J.J. Abrams also have given to the SuperPAC, and Jeffrey Katzenberg gave $2 million to help get the org launched last year.

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Hollywood money is going heavily to Obama, with industry concerns taking a back seat an array of big-picture issues, from the environment to same-sex marriage to healthcare reform. For donors of all levels, support often is based less on inspiration than on fear that their pet causes will find little traction if Mitt Romney wins the White House, Republicans control Congress, and more conservative figures are appointed to the Supreme Court.

What has Democrats particularly frightened is that support from sectors such as showbiz won’t be enough, and that by the time the fall campaign rolls around, outside spending will be so great that they will be badly outgunned when it comes to messaging on the airwaves.

But the reasons Democrats haven’t been stepping up to the plate aren’t as simple as too many donors standing on principle.

There’s personality: Some givers have grumbled for years that Obama hasn’t forged many personal bonds with the top echelons of the party’s monied class, at least compared with Bill Clinton, and that he shows a cool and even mystifying detachment that finds him in and out of town in a fund-raising flurry.

There’s also the enthusiasm factor: The rallying cry to remove an incumbent is always louder than the one to keep him in office.

And there’s philanthropy: As much as the Obama campaign and its allies have tried to rally the base to break the gridlock in Washington, some donors interested in supporting change, promoting a cause or starting a movement, may feel they get more effective outcomes by investing in their own pursuits. Back in 2004, billionaire financier George Soros, Progressive Insurance founder Peter Lewis and producer Steve Bing were the top contributors to 527 independent political action committees, a precursor of sorts to the SuperPACs, but they have yet to match that level of participation this time around, at least according to the latest campaign finance figures.

The three have different reasons for pulling back a bit this time, but there’s speculation that they revolve around dissatisfaction with the process. Bing, for instance, has been a big benefactor to the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental causes, and the green movement sees Obama’s record as mixed.

“When people think about how they want to impact the world with the money (they have) and advance their values, they go through a period when they are disaffected by politics as a way to effect change,” says David Callahan, the author of “Fortunes of Change: The Rise of the Liberal Rich and the Remaking of America.” “Even people with seemingly unlimited resources may have to set priorities. If you are disaffected by politics, philanthropy is a way you can feel a lot more optimistic.”

The question is whether such sentiments will begin to subside as the campaign progresses.

Robert Shrum, who was senior adviser to John Kerry’s campaign in 2004, says that donors who are sitting it out on principle will end up having to give more if Mitt Romney is elected, to fight for causes that he will oppose or undo. “A lot of these folks have to decide whether they are serious, or whether they are pious people making a point about campaign finance reform,” says Shrum, who also isn’t happy with big money in politics, but says that ceding fundraising ground would be worse. “Do you really want to live in Sheldon Adelson’s world?”

David Bohnett, the Los Angeles based technology entrepreneur and philanthropist, indicated he’s ready to support Obama’s reelection with any option available.

“SuperPACs are part of the system today, for better or worse,” he wrote in an email. “Some donors want to advance issue-specific campaigns, and some may feel that giving large sums to SuperPACs will adversely affect their philanthropic efforts. Hopefully, as election day nears, wealthy progressives will see how important it is to get Obama re-elected — that this is our chance to continue the progress we’ve made on human rights, get the economy moving and give everyone access to opportunity.”

There’s also another option for those who are holding their noses at all this big money in politics: Soros’ son, Jonathan, last week announced the launch of a SuperPAC with a goal of wiping out the influence of SuperPACs.

What: Pro-Obama SuperPACs are banking on Hollywood givers.
The takeaway: Donations are being fueled by private-citizen concerns, not biz interests.