A Georgia special congressional election on Tuesday is being treated as a bellwether of voter sentiment following the chaotic opening act of Donald Trump’s presidency, so it is not much of a surprise that it has drawn a significant degree of Hollywood interest.
Rosie O’Donnell, Jane Fonda, Jessica Lange, Sean Daniel, Connie Britton, Sam Waterston and Kyra Sedgwick are among those who have donated to Democrat Jon Ossoff’s campaign, while others have been participating in phone banks to get out the vote and a few, like actress Alyssa Milano, have volunteered to go door to door in the suburban Atlanta district.
What they have not been doing is flooding the district for star-filled rallies or specially produced videos, as the GOP has tried to characterize Ossoff, a documentary filmmaker, as a creature of the liberal elite.
Ossoff’s opponent, Karen Handel, and a slew of other Republican groups have tried to make an issue out of Ossoff’s support outside the district, even though she, too, has drawn outside backing.
Several weeks ago, the Congressional Leadership Fund, a GOP Super PAC, produced an ad that tried to link Ossoff to Kathy Griffin, in the midst of a backlash over Griffin’s use of a bloody Trump head effigy in a photo shoot. Ossoff’s campaign objected to the spot, and the only connection that Griffin had to his campaign was that she retweeted a supportive statement about his candidacy.
Griffin’s image again was used in a more recent spot from another group, Principled PAC, warning that Ossoff must be stopped because of the “unhinged left.” With last week’s shooting at a Republican congressional baseball practice, the ad goes so far as to claim that the “unhinged left is endorsing and applauding shooting Republicans.”
Another spot, called “Hollywood Versus Georgia,” hammers Ossoff for outside campaign contributions. The ad also is from the Congressional Leadership Fund, which is based not in Georgia but in Washington, and has spent $7 million so far to defeat Ossoff.
“This seems to be a tactic of the GOP,” Milano said via e-mail. “Their offense is to make voters feel like outsiders are coming in for our own special interests which don’t align with the community. It’s been a successful game plan thus far so I get it.
She added, “When I get involved in any race (like I did for Rob Quist as well), I show up. Boots on the ground. I go door to door. I make phone calls, I try to educate and empower to hopefully inspire people to want make a difference and exercise their right to vote.”
Quist fell short in his bid to win a Montana congressional seat earlier this month, defeated by Greg Gianforte.
The Ossoff race has gotten even more attention, as a kind of proving ground that Democratic activism and energy following Trump’s inauguration can translate into an electoral win. The Georgia seat, vacated by Tom Price after he became Secretary of Health and Human Services, leans Republican. Price won reelection by 23 percentage points last year, but Trump just barely won the district over Hillary Clinton.
That has helped make it a prime opportunity for Democratic activists to score an upset. Daily Kos, the liberal website, helped lead efforts to stir up online contributions and volunteering for Ossoff. He fell just short of winning an outright majority in an April election, which would have avoided Tuesday’s runoff.
Since then, Republicans and Democrats have poured money into the race, with total spending expected to surpass $50 million, the most expensive congressional race in history.
Democrats will be looking to the race for cues in how to approach the 2018 midterms.
“I think the general consensus if he wins this race, there could be 50 House seats available to us” in the 2018 midterms, said Lara Bergthold, a strategist at Los Angeles communications firm RALLY, who is among those who has been volunteering for Ossoff making phone calls.
She said that Ossoff’s campaign has been more interested in getting outside supporters engaged in making phone calls, while he has concentrated on fundraising within the district.
Bergthold said that a victory would give Democrats a sense of whether a strategy of grassroots interaction works. If he loses, “it is going to give us enough time before 2018 to study what is not working.”
“It will cause great reflection if he loses,” Bergthold said. She still thinks that the fact that Ossoff has been able to make a competitive run in the runoff in a Republican district is a good sign for Democrats.
Milano was shooting a pilot, “Insatiable,” in Georgia, “and quickly realized that if the show got picked up the 6th district might be where I’d live.” She drove early voters to the polls, walked door to door and worked the phone banks.
“After Trump was elected, I decided to dedicate my time and passion to trying to flip seats,” she said.
Even as Republicans attack Ossoff for his showbiz support, Milano said that “donations make these campaigns happen.”
“And honestly, these campaigns should be driven by the community, not the entertainment industry,” she said. “The entertainment industry should donate money to these campaigns so the community can be successful in wanting to participate in the political process. Also, getting out the vote. Low voter turnout is a big issue. If the entertainment industry can use their platforms to help get out the vote, that’s important.”
She and others have been using Twitter to speak out on the race. “House of Cards” creator Beau Willimon tied Republican efforts to pass Obamacare repeal-and-replace legislation to Handel’s fortunes. He also weighed in on Trump’s attacks on Ossoff for living outside the district.
Willimon also called for an upset in another special election on Tuesday in a South Carolina congressional district, where Democrat Archie Parnell is facing Republican Ralph Norman for a seat that was held by Mick Mulvaney. Mulvaney resigned his seat to become director of the Office of Management and Budget.
So far, the biggest beneficiaries of the Georgia spending bonanza are the broadcast stations, which are seeing an unexpected windfall in TV ads. One station, WXIA-TV, reportedly added a newscast on its sister station to give more airtime to the onslaught of political ads.
Evan Tracey, a media and public affairs executive and specialist in political ad spending, said that advertising will probably make up about $40 million of total spending.
“This is kind of the world we are living in. This is kind of the strength test for Trump going into 2018,” he said. “The candidates raising a ton of money, the parties putting every available resource into this and you have the Super PACs on top of that. This is what you get.”
He said that it is not just TV stations that are benefiting but local cable and radio. “If you have some way to reach voters in that district, someone is buying you now,” he said.
The 2018 elections will be different because spending will be diffused across many different competitive seats. Until then, there will be other special elections that also could see an influx of spending.
“This will be the biggest race until then,” Tracey said. “We are kind of in that place right now.”