Hollywood Democrats See Signs of Hope in Burst of Anti-Trump Activism

Elizabeth Warren Democratic National Convention
AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Hollywood’s Democrats are starting to line up again after the bruising defeat from the 2016 elections, setting their sights not just on the midterms, but on the next presidential race.

This week, a number of politicians are trekking to Los Angeles for fundraisers during the week-long recess, even though this has traditionally been a time of donor fatigue.

On Tuesday night, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) raised money for her re-election campaign to a full house at the home of Norman and Lyn Lear. While Warren has been a favorite among showbiz progressives, interest in the event was boosted by an incident on the floor of the Senate earlier this month, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell cut her off as she tried to read a 1986 letter from Coretta Scott King about Jeff Sessions.

Also in L.A. this week: House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, appearing at a “policy and politics” discussion at the home of Damon Lindelof and his wife Heidi, on Tuesday. Also on the bill were Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D. Calif.). Lujan chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, tasked with winning back the House in 2018.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) was elected just last year, but she has also been raising money for her leadership PAC, Fearless for the People, including an event at the home of Ron Burkle. Another newly elected senator, Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), is scheduled to attend a “thank you reception” at the home of Hope Warschaw on Saturday.

Also eyeing 2018 is Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who is scheduled to attend a lunchtime fundraiser for her re-election campaign on March 17 at the home of Jon Vein and Ellen Goldsmith-Vein. Contributions start at $1,000 per person. Feinstein, however, has not officially announced whether she will seek another term, but the event is an indication that she will. Hillary Clinton’s running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), also is set for a fundraiser for his reelection campaign on March 18, hosted by financial adviser Sara Qazi and attorney Rachel Rosoff.

Last week, ICM Partners’ Chris Silbermann hosted Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who faces reelection next year, and the agency’s Ted Chervin hosted Jim Johnson, who is running for governor of New Jersey, with the primary on June 6. Next month, Silbermann will also host an event for Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who, like Gillibrand, Harris, and Warren, are viewed as 2020 presidential prospects.

“Let me put it this way: After an election what happens is usually everyone needs a rest,” says Mathew Littman, a Los Angeles area political consultant and speechwriter. “That is not happening at all. There is a burnout factor after an election, and if anything people are just completely energized.”

Democrats will need it in 2018.

While the party that occupies the White House traditionally loses seats in the first midterm, Democrats face an uphill climb just to retain the seats that they have in the Senate, much less win back control. Republicans will be defending eight seats, while Democrats will try to retain 23, as well as two held by independents that caucus with the party. Democrats also need a net gain of two dozen seats in the House to regain the majority there, a daunting task.

But donors and fundraisers say that they are hopeful that the wave of protests and activism that have greeted Trump’s first weeks in office is translating into a new focus on the midterms and off-year elections, as well as on state down-ballot races.

Jon Vein said that “there’s always going to be some modicum of fatigue for donors after the massive cycle we went through.” But he added that they already are getting a “tremendous response” to the Feinstein event.

“I think people realize more than ever how important the congressional elections are, but beyond that they are looking at what we can do that the Republicans did in the last 10 years, which is to focus on down-ballot races,” he said.

Lara Bergthold, principal partner at RALLY, a communications firm, said that the donor class “is certainly very interested in doubling down on electing new Democratic candidates and reelecting ones in office who are up for reelection in 2018. “

She isn’t detecting donor fatigue.

“Zero. People are trying to find extra scraps of money they have been hiding under their mattresses,” she said. “It is a good time to be raising money in the progressive community right now. Fear is a powerful thing.”

She says that support isn’t just focused on 2018, but a number of activist organizations, like Swing Left, focused on winning back the House in 2018, and Indivisible, which is helping to turn out constituents to press their lawmakers to “resist” Trump’s agenda.

“Honestly, there is probably nothing better than Trump’s tweets than to drive people to write,” Bergthold says.

Bergthold said that donors are even interested in a special election in Delaware on Saturday, which will determine whether the state Senate turns Republican.

Another race being watched is over the selection of the next chair of the Democratic National Committee later this week as the party gathers in Atlanta for its annual winter meeting.

Although the race is usually of interest to only the most politically engaged of party insiders, the drubbing the Democrats took last year has put new emphasis on the next leader to unify the party and rebuild.

One industry fundraiser, who did not want to be identified, expressed concerns over lingering rifts between the progressive wing of the party and the center, but also that the Democrats will get too carried away with opposition to Trump and will not offer a compelling idea of what the party stands for. “I don’t think being the ‘party of no’ is enough for them,” the fundraiser said.

There are fissures. Keith Ellison, the Democratic congressman from Minnesota, is a leading candidate who drew early endorsements from Bernie Sanders and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. He also has been backed by Gloria Steinem and Dolores Huerta.

But in December, media mogul Haim Saban, among the most prolific of all Democratic fundraisers, said that Ellison “would be a disaster for the relationship between the Jewish community and the Democratic Party.”

Another candidate for DNC chairman, former Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, has drawn backers such as Vice President Joe Biden and former Attorney General Eric Holder. Andy Spahn, the consultant who represents such figures as Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg, said that he is endorsing him.

Others running include Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., who was endorsed by former DNC chair Howard Dean on Wednesday.

Vein said that he is backing Perez, and even had a recent breakfast with him on an auspicious date: Jan. 20, just as Trump was being sworn in. He views Perez as someone who will “open the tent.”

“I don’t think the loss in 2016 is necessarily a reflection of our party not having the right values or the right message,” Vein said. “The bigger issues for me are having the party willing to play long ball, like the Republicans did.”