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What’s Next: Hollywood’s Takeaways From the Midterms

With about a dozen or so races yet to be called, CNN on Tuesday night will return to the midterms, once again bringing in its top anchors, analysts, and John King at the Magic Wall to go over the results.

It’s indicative of how the initial Election Night assessment — that Democrats won the House but fell short of a blue wave — instead has given way to an unfolding storyline of substantial victory. Democratic gains may near 40 House seats, along with flipping seven governorships and more than 300 legislative seats.

And what looked to be a disastrous night for Democrats in the Senate instead may be limited to a two- or even one-seat loss. On Monday night, the Associated Press declared Kyrsten Sinema the winner of a Senate seat in Arizona, the first Democrat to win such a victory in 30 years.

Among Hollywood’s Democrats, the loss of some of the signature races, like Beto O’Rourke’s effort to defeat Ted Cruz, initially put a damper on the night, but as votes are still being counted, that sentiment has changed. Over the weekend, Harley Rouda was declared the winner over longtime Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher, and the remaining outstanding vote has raised the possibility that all of the House delegation representing Orange County will be represented by Democrats.

“I don’t think it was a split decision,” said entrepreneur Jon Vein, who along with his wife, producer Ellen Goldsmith-Vein, hosted more than 20 events at their home this cycle. “In an absolute sense, this was a great victory for the Democrats and a rebuke to Trump.”

He thinks the victory also has to be viewed in the relative sense: Democrats made those gains despite gerrymandered districts and a president presiding over a thriving economy.

Vein added that “it is hard to celebrate when the label of voter suppression and other disenfranchisement is alive and well, but the Democrats’ victories in the face of these sorts of behaviors does speak volumes.”

The California victories of Rouda and other Democrats, like Katie Hill, who defeated Steve Knight for a Ventura County congressional seat, could also bolster the entertainment industry in Washington on issues like copyright and trade. Both candidates drew heavily on industry support.

“We helped raise millions from the Hollywood community to take back the House and we did,” said Kevin Ryan, partner at Gonring, Spahn and Associates and head of its D.C. office. “And we expect having at least four new Democratic members from Southern California will only strengthen the content community’s voice on Capitol Hill.”

Here are other takeaways on the midterms, and what they will mean for Hollywood.

The Oprah effect. The week before the election in Georgia, Oprah Winfrey campaigned for Stacey Abrams, and she appeared at two events and canvassed a bit door-to-door to get out the vote.

Did it make any difference? Abrams trails her Republican opponent, Brian Kemp, but her campaign is hoping that the final total will force a runoff. President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence dismissed the impact of celebrities on the trail, and Pence himself said of the star power aligned behind Abrams: “This ain’t Hollywood.”

The trouble is, short of an exhaustive study, it’s almost impossible to say for certain whether Winfrey helped or hurt. You could say that her presence on the campaign trail was a wash, or perhaps it did help drive more people to the polls who otherwise would not have turned out for Abrams.

“I think people have misguided expectations of what celebrity endorsements do for candidates,” says Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta.

A celebrity can call attention to a candidate and affirm a voter’s preference, help a campaign raise money and excite campaign volunteers, but having an actual impact depends on what the high-profile figure does, Gillespie said. She finds it notable that Winfrey and Will Ferrell didn’t just endorse Abrams, but actually walked precincts.

“To the extent celebrity endorsers were also volunteers and out campaigning, yes, they had an impact,” she said, citing studies showing that personal contact with voters increases the likelihood that they will go to the polls.

Taylor Swift certainly generated headlines when she stepped into the political arena and endorsed Phil Bredesen in Tennessee, but her activity largely came in the form of social media. That may have helped boost voter registration, but in the end, Bredesen lost handily to Marsha Blackburn.

Jimmy Kimmel campaigned for Jacky Rosen, who flipped a Senate seat in Nevada, and it certainly didn’t hurt that he’s used his talk show platform to highlight one of Democrats’ signature issues this cycle, health care. Did he make a difference in the Nevada race? Maybe, but absent an actual study, no one really can be sure.

The same goes for the flood of celebrity-driven PSAs encouraging voters to get to the polls.

The industry group We Stand United helped stage rallies and produced a number of get-out-the-vote videos, including an immigration-themed spot that debuted the Saturday before the midterms and featured Rosario Dawson and Julianne Moore.

Producer Bruce Cohen, one of the co-founders of the group, said they don’t know what effect a particular message had, but their overall focus was on turnout, which appears to be way, way up. “We didn’t see a lot of evidence of blowback, where potentially using influencers had a negative effect,” he said.

Another factor: Timing. Winfrey’s endorsement may have been “too late in the game” to have had a significant impact, Gillespie said. The same goes for Beyonce, who endorsed O’Rourke just hours before polls closed in Texas.

Trump may not believe that support mattered, but he also brought in celebrities like Lee Greenwood and Fox News figures such as Sean Hannity and Jeanine Pirro, and he was banking on his own fame to rub off on congressional and state-level races. He was, Gillespie said, “doing the same thing.”

As for Winfrey, she says she is not interested in running for president in 2020, but is there anyone who doubts that any of the Democratic contenders wouldn’t still crave her endorsement?

Showbiz drilled down to the district. Some of the marquee races turned into disappointments for Democrats, but Hollywood didn’t just have its sights set on O’Rourke, Abrams, and Andrew Gillum.

In contrast to past midterms, showbiz figures showered support on congressional candidates well beyond Hollywood, in many cases bypassing centralized party committees and working directly for the campaigns themselves.

Writer-director Billy Ray, for instance, organized a fundraiser in early October for five out-of-state congressional candidates. Four of them — Dean Phillips in Minnesota, Haley Stevens in Michigan, Kendra Horn in Oklahoma, and Lucy McBath in Georgia — won their races or are projected to win.

Jon Liebman and Jill Greenwald hosted an event for Jason Crow, who ended up flipping the Colorado congressional seat held by Republican Mike Coffman.

These types of events were numerous this cycle, in contrast to past midterms, when much of the fundraising centered on events for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee or the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Hollywood still saw big money donors writing checks — Seth MacFarlane, for instance, gave $2 million to the Senate Majority PAC, which supported Democrats. But one notable aspect of the cycle was how it drew in a new group of fundraisers, like the OMG WTF PAC, which tried to draw younger industry donors into different types of events.

The energy that went into 2018, followed by victories, could have an important impact on 2020, in that there may be less donor fatigue. “There is going to be tremendous interest the next cycle,” Cohen said.

DC intrigue. With their new House majority, Democrats are likely to continue to press big tech on issues like privacy, data collection, and election interference. Studio lobbyists have seized on the new scrutiny and will continue to push for “platform accountability” to try to also highlight issues of piracy.

But in the immediate term, the expected wave of congressional probes could have some fallout that touches the media world.

Democrats have said they want to take a harder line on issues like antitrust enforcement.

But Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told “Axios on HBO” that he would like to see examinations of whether Trump used the executive branch’s enforcement powers to try to block the AT&T-Time Warner merger as a way to get back at CNN. He also cited Trump’s attacks on the Washington Post, and whether he attempted to force the postmaster general to raise Amazon’s postal rates as a way to punish the Post’s owner, Jeff Bezos.

Other House committees could take up other media-centric moves, like the FCC’s relaxation of media ownership rules, along with the ongoing issue of net neutrality. The expectation is that such issues would come up not through legislation, but oversight and investigations.

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