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Hollywood Democrats Double Down Ahead of Midterms: ‘This Is Personal Now’

Variety Midterm Election Special Coverage Illustration
neil jamieson for Variety

With just three weeks to go until the mid-term elections, Hollywood Democrats claim they are not taking anything for granted — a different outlook than they had in 2016.

Complacency and confidence are being replaced by energy, enthusiasm and anger, as industry heavyweights forge get-out-the-vote videos, knock on doors and in some cases perform at candidate fundraisers. They’re also shelling out what looks to be record amounts of money to ensure a Democratic victory.

Moreover, activists believe the recent confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court creates an even greater sense of urgency on the left, particularly among younger voters, even if the polarizing battle also has united the right.

“This is all a perfect storm,” says actress and activist Alyssa Milano. “Everything from electing Trump to #MeToo to this Kavanaugh hearing and Dr. [Christine Blasey] Ford coming forward. This is all personal now. And when we are seeing our rights stripped away, we’re scared. Women are scared.”

Actor Mark Ruffalo, among an array of artists who’ve organized a group to boost turnout this year, believes that the GOP’s victory in 2016 will trigger a voter swing to the left. “For every action, there is a reaction of equal strength. It’s the law of physics,” he says.

The challenge for Hollywood players engaging in this year’s campaigns is that this is a much more caustic, polarized environment, even from two years ago, and one that calls for much more savviness when it comes to lending time, money and attention to campaigns.

Trump and the GOP are seizing on celebrity outbursts, like Robert De Niro’s f-bomb at the Tony Awards and other verbal grenades, to characterize the left as “unhinged,” as a recent Hollywood-focused Republican National Committee web video put it. Celebrities who are merely willing to endorse Democrats do so at the risk of the president’s wrath, as Taylor Swift saw after she backed Phil Bredesen for the Senate in Tennessee, and Trump responded by saying he liked her music “25% less now.” (Some attribute Swift’s first-time political endorsement, followed by her call for her Instagram followers to vote, for a subsequent uptick in voter registration of more than 65,000 people).

The Republican takeaway: Democrats are embracing the entertainment industry’s wealthy, coastal elite. “If I were advising the Hollywood community, I would tell them to tone it down and that less is more, but they rarely take my advice,” says Republican pollster Frank Luntz. “Do you want to make a statement, or do you want to make a difference? Too many in Hollywood want to make a statement, but they don’t make a difference.”

Activists in entertainment believe that the Women’s March and the #MeToo movement have changed that equation, and demand making a statement and a difference in a more aggressive way. Take Amy Schumer. She was arrested at one of the anti-Kavanaugh protests in Washington, and later posted a video of the experience along with a message: “November is coming,” a play on a “Game of Thrones” catchphrase about a season of redemption. “They portray these marches as angry, rabid events where women are being crazy,” she wrote. “That’s not it at all. It’s fun. You’ll feel good. Get involved.”

Schumer and others are betting that the energy and organizing will motivate more voters to go to the polls, particularly women under 30.

“There is a raw anger and determination that existed before, but not in such a sharpened way,” says Lara Bergthold, a political strategist at Rally communications. She says she sees a shift in industry players pushing themselves beyond their comfort zone, whether it be knocking on doors or endorsing a candidate. She believes that the upset over the Kavanaugh confirmation could be “just the extra push we need,” adding, “In this community, there was already a recognition that white male Republicans treat and see women differently. You saw that in how [the number of women] running for office was a recognition we need more women in positions of power.”

A record 183 women Democratic nominees are on the ballot for the House of Representatives this year, and 52 women Republican nominees are running, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Another record 15 women Democratic nominees are running for Senate, compared with seven Republicans. (Note: Six of the seven current Republican female senators voted to confirm Kavanaugh; all 17 Democratic female senators voted to oppose his confirmation.)

Milano thinks the furor over the Kavanaugh confirmation will end up helping Democrats.

“I think that we are now going to take the Senate,” she says. “Because of Kavanaugh. I think that women are enraged. On voter registration day, there were 800,000 new registered voters, which is the most of any single day that we had. I don’t think that is a coincidence, and that was in the middle of all of this. And I think what the polling is not showing are first-time voters who I believe, through the youth-activism movement we’re having, are going to come out in droves.” On Election Day, she hopes to travel to seven competitive House districts in California to help transport voters to the polls.

Her hopes are tempered by others, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who believe that the confirmation battle only unified disparate elements of the right and will benefit the GOP in the midterms. He also predicted that the anger over the Supreme Court battle would “blow over.” Not on TV. “Murphy Brown” will feature a reference to Kavanaugh in an upcoming episode, with Peter Gallagher playing a Sean Hannity-like character.

Another reminder is Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Protesters dressed in handmaid outfits stood silently outside the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings and later at some of the demonstrations. At least one Democratic House candidate used the look in a campaign ad. The series’ executive producer, Warren Littlefield, says that “there is an instant recognition” of the handmaid’s outfit, and that it has become a “strong statement on human values and feminist values.” Commenting on the state of American institutions, he adds: “We appear every day to be headed in a direction that represents Gilead, and that is not good for anybody.”

Plenty of Hollywood talent is committing to the battle, starring in or producing a wave of get-out-the-vote videos. Tom Hanks, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw can be seen in videos for a Michelle Obama-led campaign; Kerry Washington, Tracee Ellis Ross and Uzo Aduba appear in a new series for the progressive political group Swing Left.

Is it all too much? In the aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016, multi-hyphenate Tina Fey quipped in a speech that the real reason Clinton lost was that there were “not enough celebrity music videos urging people to vote.” Luntz, the pollster, thinks such efforts may resonate with first- and second-time voters, since the younger generation is “more attuned to celebrity culture.” But for “voters over 50, it doesn’t have much of an impact” and may even hurt, he maintains.

Rob Long, the writer-producer who co-founded the center-right site Ricochet, is no fan of Trump but says that celebrity participation may have the effect of only helping Trump’s brand — that of someone who “says it like it is” against the cultural elite and the sophisticates on the left. “He is like a Batman villain, and Americans think he’s more normal than the Democratic Party,” Long says.

Republicans are magnifying their traditional attacks on Democrats for embracing Hollywood, the implication being that they are out-of-touch elitists. Trump is more than willing to bash actors, award shows and late-night comics, while Republican Party committees try to seize on some of the more outrageous anti-Trump comments made by showbiz personalities to claim that the left is spinning out of control. However, stars who favor Trump, like Kanye West, are not only embraced but given an Oval Office platform.

Alyssa Milano hugs Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., in the Dirksen Senate Office Building Sept. 27 prior to the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. Milano plans to help transport voters to the polls in California districts where races are tight.
Tom Williams/POOL/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

Antonio Sabato Jr., an actor running as a Republican for a congressional seat in California’s Ventura County, suggests that the industry’s bias against conservatives has only worsened in the Trump era. After he spoke at the Republican National Convention in 2016, he says, “I couldn’t get jobs. My commercial agent left me when I came back.”

As Hollywood aligns with the left, he says, “It’s not only an attack on conservatives, it is an attack on people who have a higher belief in God, that have family values.”

One of the more frequent Hollywood critics is Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who faces a tight race for reelection against Democratic opponent Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

Cruz has highlighted O’Rourke’s ties to entertainment industry supporters, and claims that his opponent is out of sync with the politics and values of Texans. O’Rourke’s response? He hasn’t stopped raising money from Hollywood, and recently held a campaign event with Willie Nelson that drew more than 50,000 people, according to the Austin-American Statesman.

Nelson, too, took some flak from his fans, but his response, offered in an interview on ABC talk show “The View,” was succinct. “I don’t care,” he said. Rather than tone down political support, the sentiment is to not be cowed, as Jane Fonda recently told Variety.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who has been raising money for state party committees via a PAC his allies formed for the midterms, says that the response for O’Rourke in Texas should be to “ask Ted Cruz what he watches when he comes home. Does he just do puppet shows with his kids, or, like the rest of America, does he actively consume a great American industry? Why would you bad-mouth them any more than you bad-mouth folks who work in a factory?”

America Ferrera, the star of NBC’s “Superstore,” who has been a regular presence at campaign events and recent rallies on issues like immigration, says of the attacks from the right: “I just think it’s bulls—. Our thoughts and our ideas and our actions have been relegated to ‘Oh, Hollywood elite. They are so out of touch.’” She adds: “I don’t know a single person who works in Hollywood who was born and raised on a television set. I was born to immigrant parents, a single mother raising six children on a salary that would be hard to raise one child. I am not the coastal elite. I am a storyteller in entertainment.”

Diane English, the executive producer of “Murphy Brown,” also pushes back against the idea that the industry is stuck in a bubble when it comes to understanding Middle America. In the recent series premiere, Murphy gets into a Twitter war with Trump, and “when we tested the episode, even people who voted for Trump thought that was funny because they hate his tweeting and wish he wouldn’t do it so much.”

“My whole family voted for Trump,” English continues. “It’s not like I’m in a bubble. I don’t think these people can be demonized — only the real crazies that you see at rallies. But by and large the country voted for him because they thought they were going to get a good businessman who would give them job opportunities. We’re not in the business of trying to put those people down.”

Some Hollywood figures are trying to tailor their political videos and messages to specific types of voters. Producer Bruce Cohen, who has teamed with other industry figures in a get-out-the-vote effort, says the aim is to reach younger voters who have tuned out. “They’re not watching MSNBC and Fox on purpose,” he says. “It’s finding ways to get to them where they live on their devices and empower them and move them to vote.”

Cohen, Ruffalo, Marisa Tomei, Fisher Stevens, Julia Walsh, Rebecca Chaikin, Christina Papagjika and Schele Williams have formed the group We Stand United to organize artists and entertainment professionals. They’ve been trying to sway voters with digital ads, social media and on-the-ground voter-turnout events focused on 10 states.

“It’s not enough to say, ‘We are going to keep the Democratic Party looking exactly the same as it has always looked.’ That’s not what this generation wants anymore.” America Ferrera

Cohen says that often celebrities and influencers come into a state and attempt to impose their ways on the grassroots organizations. “What we have been doing is to go from the ground up, not the other way around,” he says. “It’s finding the right grassroots organizations in the state where you want to make a difference — they’re actually doing great work. And it’s having them tell you what they need, what the message should be, whether influencers and celebrities will help and, if so, who will be authentic.”

Donors also are being more discerning about where to spend their money, reaching out to individual candidates rather than concentrating on omnibus party committees. When former President Barack Obama headlined a fundraiser in May for Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., at the home of Universal’s Jeff Shell, one of the questions was whether Democrats were going into the midterms lacking a unifying message. Obama’s response, according to sources who were there, was not to worry so much. The midterms were likely to be a response to Trump.

That’s true, but what’s striking is how much of industry fundraising has gone granular.

With the potential for Democrats to take over the House and even have a shot at the Senate, donors have turned their attention to candidates beyond those just in California and New York, targeting their giving to individuals or groups of contenders from places that have no connection to the entertainment industry.

Director-screenwriter Billy Ray recently organized an event at the Writers Guild of America Theater, co-hosted by more than three dozen industry executives and creative professionals, for five Democratic candidates seeking House seats in Ohio, Oklahoma, Georgia, Minnesota and Michigan. Ray says that in May, anxious to get involved, he invited several California House candidates to meet him and his friends for coffee. That turned into regular panels with candidates from all over the country, and Ray and others have worked with them on speeches and messaging.

“I have met probably 30 of the House candidates on the Democratic side, and worked with quite a number of them,” Ray says. “Every one of them is showing the intelligence and strength to run a local race. They are talking about healthcare, government corruption, education, the environment. None of them is running against Trump; in most of the places where they are from, that is not a winning strategy yet.”

So far, showbiz donors have contributed a total of $32.7 million to federal candidates this cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That already exceeds the amount of Hollywood giving for each of the 2014, 2010 and 2006 midterms, and may very well surpass the $37.2 million spent in 2002. The party breakdown is about as lopsided now as it was back then — 78% to Democrats, 22% to Republicans.

Katie Porter, a UC Irvine law professor running to unseat Republican Mimi Walters in an Orange County district, says that industry donors have been reaching beyond the “usual suspects” in entertainment. “Not everybody who works in entertainment was engaged in 2016, or Historically,” she says. “We have seen unprecedented energy, and I think that’s one of the more exciting parts. It’s not just that they are following the races, but they want to affirmatively grow the number of folks who are following the races.”

Still, there is a note of caution against overconfidence. Entrepreneur Jon Vein and his wife, producer Ellen Goldsmith-Vein, have hosted more than 20 events at their home this cycle. Vein says that at this point back in 2016, the level of partisanship was great but not as great as it is now. “There was not as much a sense of urgency about the consequences of the election as there is now,” he says.

Among upcoming events, Casey and Laura Wasserman will host a fundraiser for eight Democratic candidates seeking to flip House seats in California, with tickets for the Oct. 16 appeal ranging from $100 for young professionals to $21,600 to co-chairs.

Laura Wasserman says that there is a marked difference this cycle in the time and attention being paid among L.A.’s donors to the midterms.

She says, “I live in a political circle. I have grown up in the political family. Every lunch, every dinner, everywhere I go, people are talking about it and saying, ‘How do we change this?’”

When Robert De Niro dropped an f-bomb on President Trump at this year’s Tony Awards, the crowd roared. But Republicans have used the moment to paint the left as “unhinged.”
Michael Zorn/Invision/AP/REX/Shu

The MPAA and studio political action committees are splitting their money almost evenly between the parties, but the personal contributions of studio chieftains have largely stayed aligned with Democrats. For instance, Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger has donated $144,200 this cycle — almost all to Democratic Senate candidates. He co-hosted an event in February for senators including Bill Nelson of Florida, McCaskill of Missouri, Jon Tester of Montana, Joe Manchin of West Virginia (the lone Democrat to support Kavanaugh’s nomination), Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.

Hollywood’s business interests may not be impacted no matter who wins Congress.

Lawmakers already are raising privacy concerns about the ways tech companies are collecting and selling data, and the close scrutiny of Silicon Valley is likely to continue even if Democrats take control. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, likely to run for speaker if Democrats win a majority, has suggested a new agency to deal with tech and its impact, and proposed an Internet Bill of Rights to protect consumers. That’s welcome news for Hollywood’s lobbyists, who have tried to seize the moment as a chance to promote “platform responsibility,” especially when it comes to piracy. But so far there is no concerted push for legislation that would significantly change copyright law.

Also likely if Democrats win control of one or both chambers of Congress are more investigations and more oversight, including over federal departments and agencies. That includes the FCC, now led by Ajit Pai, and a Republican majority that has rolled back net neutrality laws. Tom Wheeler, the former chairman of the FCC under Obama, says that media conglomerates won’t get as free a ride if control of power shifts. It’s a “different experience when you have the Republicans flying air cover for you for everything you do,” Wheeler says, compared with Democrats who may want to question policy decisions. Net neutrality and broadcast ownership rules could get new focus at government hearings.

But what if Democrats fall short and fail to take either the House or the Senate? Donors will be fatigued and depressed, just as they were in the wake of Clinton’s defeat. But asking for results before the campaigning has ended is getting ahead of the game. “Right now, we have to focus on the task at hand,” says Vein.

Soon after Nov. 6, the 2020 presidential race will start in earnest. Potential presidential aspirants have been courting donors and supporters in Hollywood for some time, usually under the auspices of raising money for the midterms. Former Vice President Joe Biden recently held an event with about two dozen donors at Jeffrey Katzenberg’s WndrCo, and Cory Booker attended a fundraiser at the home of producer Simon Kinberg on Oct. 14.

Garcetti recently held an event with DJ Khaled and Jimmy Kimmel that raised almost $1.5 million for 10 state parties. Even Michael Avenatti, attorney for Trump antagonist Stormy Daniels, headlined a fundraiser — an event for the young-Hollywood-focused WTF OMG PAC to raise money for state-level candidates in Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, Wisconsin, Texas and Florida. Co-hosts included actor Darren Criss.

No matter the election results, Democrats will face a reckoning over the future of the party. It’ll be easier if they win, much more wrenching if they lose, but a number of activists have concerns over how leadership responds to changes in the culture of the party, already seen in the movements in Hollywood toward greater gender parity and diversity.

“We’re absolutely at an inflection point, and it’s anyone’s guess which way this party is going to evolve,” says Ferrera. “We want to see ourselves and our voices in positions of influence and power, in lawmaking positions. It’s not enough to say, ‘We are going to keep the Democratic Party looking exactly the same as it has always looked. Trust the same people to incorporate your values and represent you.’ That’s not what this generation wants anymore,” she maintains. “We want to see representation of ourselves for ourselves. That’s not comfortable for a lot of people who benefit from things staying the same.”

Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.