How are Hollywood Democrats feeling about Tuesday’s elections? In one word: dread.
With signs over the weekend that some key Senate races were moving toward Republicans, hopes were on chances that the polling is wrong, that Democrats will come through in turnout, or that a GOP Senate majority will be slim and very quickly shoot itself in the foot.
But a number of donors and industry activists said that their expectations were that the GOP would win the six seats necessary to give them a majority in the Senate and may even widen their lead in the House.
There will be consequences for the entertainment industry, not just on issues that activate progressives, like climate change and immigration, but on industry-centric concerns over net neutrality and media consolidation.
Political consultant Donna Bojarsky says that “it will completely matter that Republicans have committee chairmanships,” with an impact on laws and regulations as well as nominations, and defying the notion that this election is inconsequential. The silver lining for progressives would be that Democrats could be energized in opposition to a Republican-controlled Congress, or that voters won’t be able to blame a Democratic Senate, or that demographic trends and the electoral map still favors their party in 2016.
Few are predicting that things will run smoother in D.C. It may even get worse.
“I look at it more in the mega-narrative, in whether it moves the country to further dissatisfaction,” says Lara Bergthold, principal partner at communications firm Rally. She said that she is going into Tuesday “hopefully optimistic and realistically terrified.”
No matter which party ends up ahead in the midterms, if the past is any guide the 2016 campaigns will rev up fairly quickly in the coming months.
So here are five things showbiz activists will be watching on Tuesday:
1) The Senate majority. If Republicans do control the Senate and the House, it doesn’t mean Obamacare is in jeopardy or the EPA is eliminated. Short of an electoral wallop, Republicans are likely to be left short of a 60-vote filibuster-proof majority, as well as President Obama’s veto authority. The wrenching dynamics of reaching agreement to fund the government are bound to continue, and when it comes to issues that stand to have an impact on entertainment, a GOP Congress may have its greatest influence through letter writing and oversight hearings. The FCC will still go ahead on its efforts to write rules of the road for the Internet, a.k.a. net neutrality, and in its pending decision on whether to approve the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, but the Senate could very well join the House in sounding the alarm of regulatory overreach, barraging chairman Tom Wheeler with queries and requests for testimony. A GOP Senate may be slightly more measured in taking on an independent agency, in part because of the figures who would hold chairmanships. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) would be in line to succeed Sen,. Jay Rockefeller (R-W.Va.) as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) would be on deck to take over from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Neither could stop FCC action short of some kind of defunding manuever, but that too would presumably have to get through the gridlock.
2) Showbiz candidates. A bright spot for Democrats on Tuesday may be in the reelection campaign of Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.). After winning his seat by a very slim margin following a recount in 2009, Franken has held a lead over challenger Mike McFadden throughout the campaign. In his five years in the Senate, Franken’s formula has been to play down his celebrity, staying off of high-profile Sunday talk shows and largely avoiding national media. The exception has been his opposition to the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger and support for robust net neutrality rules, but his statements have tended to be more wonkish than highlighting his media past. If he wins and is in the minority, he will still be able to garner attention, and perhaps he will feel freer to play up his “Saturday Night Live” humor beyond the fund-raising circuit.
Things look a bit tougher for former “American Idol” contestant Clay Aiken, who is running for a congressional seat in a Republican-leaning district in North Carolina. His opponent, Republican Renee Ellmers, has all but mocked his showbiz past, while he has shot back by tarring her as a member of a dysfunctional Congress. “The most embarrassing reality show in the country right now is Congress,” he said at a recent debate. Ellmers has the advantage, but Aiken may come away with a not-so-embarrassing showing to prove that this is just the start of a new career.
3) Kentucky’s vote. The most recent polling appears to be moving in Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s direction as he seeks to hold on to a Senate seat in Kentucky, but it won’t be for lack of trying among entertainment donors. His opponent, Alison Grimes (above), was the top recipient of showbiz money this cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, bolstered by early support from Jeffrey Katzenberg and a long list of prominent figures like Harvey Weinstein, Barbra Streisand, Steven Spielberg and Ben Affleck. Republicans have tried to use her Hollywood support against her, but if she loses it’s doubtful that will be pegged as much of a factor as being identified with President Obama in a state where he is highly unpopular. If Republicans gain the Senate majority, there are likely to be plenty of donor gripes to the DNC and other party committees about what went wrong even with a healthy war chest. Overall, industry Democrats have given $19.4 million to House and Senate campaigns, which may about match the level of contributions made in the last midterms of 2010, when they gave $21.7 million. Republicans have taken a slightly greater share of industry money, primarily as corporate PACs and their executives hedge their bets. The split from showbiz is 67% to Democrats and 33% to Republicans this cycle, from 73% to 27% in 2012 and 2010, according to CRP.
4) California. Governor Jerry Brown is expected to enjoy a significant victory and win a 4th term in the Golden State, perhaps a contrast to Republican gains elsewhere. He could be in an interesting position in his final term, not just because of the size of his support but an unspent war chest he may have when the campaign is over. He has spent little time actually campaigning for reelection, but instead has devoted his energies and some of his $20 million campaign fund to getting passage of two propositions, for a water bond and for a rainy day fund. According to Dan Schnur, executive director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, Brown can spend the unused money on charity, to a political party or to a ballot initiative. That could further his influence via spending on future initiatives. Interestingly enough, even as Brown enjoyed a wide lead in the polls as he has waged a non-campaign, campaign contributions have continued to flow in. According to state campaign finance records reported on Oct. 31, Spielberg and his wife Kate Capshaw each gave $27,400 to Brown.
The lack of suspense atop the ballot in the state instead has turned energies to other races, like a hotly contested campaign between Democrats Marshall Tuck and incumbent Tom Torlakson for State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Another local contest garnering industry attention is in Los Angeles County. That’s where Sheila Kuehl, a former state senator and assemblywoman who was one of the stars of “Dobie Gillis,” is vying for a seat on the Board of Supervisors against Bobby Shriver, the former mayor of Santa Monica and nephew of John F. Kennedy.
5) 2016. Depressed Democrats may get their greatest solace from the fact that the midterms will be over, from just moving on to what’s next. Fundraising professionals would be wise to give donors a breather, but it won’t be too long before the cycle starts all over again.
If Hillary Clinton gets in the race, she may have set a new record for the length of a pre-campaign campaign, the endless guessing game teased by a book tour, speeches, midterm politicking and charity events. And while Clinton would likely to garner substantial Hollywood support in contrast to the divisions that split Democrats in 2008, already some industry progressives like Adam McKay, co-founder of Funny or Die, are expressing fears that Clinton will be too much of a centrist — or a “corporatist,” as one woman with a loud megaphone yelled outside a Clinton event in Brentwood last month to raise money for midterm candidates. But the Clinton brand will be front and center in Los Angeles just four days after the election, when former President Bill Clinton holds a fundraiser for his foundation at Paramount Studios on Nov. 7, with Jessica Alba among the guests. And expect Republican prospects like Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and even Ted Cruz to try to meet and greet with industry conservatives, a smaller but still sizable contingent. Meanwhile, the current occupant of the White House, Obama, will be a lame duck, but could try to engage the industry as he pursues executive orders on immigration and climate change, his My Brother’s Keep initiative, as well as continued enrollment in the Affordable Care Act.