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California’s Primary: The Races Hollywood Is Watching

Much of Hollywood’s attention has been on midterms and the prospect of Democrats winning back control of Congress, but California’s primary on Tuesday will in many ways set the stage for November and for challenging President Trump into 2020.

Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa, the two highest-profile Democratic names running for governor, have drawn heavily on their industry ties for support, and other contributors are backing independent committees looking to sway voters. Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, contributed $7 million to the California Charter Schools Association’s effort to elect the former Los Angeles mayor. Hastings’ outlay made him the largest individual donor in governor’s race so far this cycle.

The perception is that the next governor all but assuredly will be a Democrat — and one who can be a high-profile West Coast voice of opposition to the White House.

Other races also have garnered the industry’s attention.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is being challenged from the left by State Sen. Kevin de Leon. While Feinstein is drawing on a long list of faithful backers from Hollywood, de Leon also has ties to the business, having played a role in pushing through an expansion of the state’s film and TV production incentive programs.

In Orange County, a number of industry figures are lending their voices to try to boost turnout to ensure that a Democrat makes it on the ballot in a series of key House races that could prove critical to party hopes of winning back the House. The state’s open primary means that the top two vote getters — regardless of party — will advance to the general election. That is particularly vexing for Democrats in some key races, where the sheer number of candidates may split the vote and hand the top two slots to Republicans.

The primary also has an actor running for office, but from the right: In a Ventura County coastal district, actor and former model Antonio Sabato Jr. is seeking a spot on the November ballot in his bid to unseat Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Calif.). Sabato is hoping for a surprise finish, as he is running as a solid supporter of President Trump in a district that Trump lost handily to Hillary Clinton.

Here’s a glance at the races those in Hollywood will be watching:

Governor: Newsom, the frontrunner, has lined up a long list of industry supporters. Reese Witherspoon and Jim Toth hosted an event for him at their home last year, and Netflix’s Ted Sarandos and music producer Nicole Avant held a fundraiser for his campaign in April. Others who have co-hosted events for Newsom include ICM Partners’ Chris Silbermann, producer Ryan Murphy, and producer Mike Medavoy. Others who have contributed include Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman Tom Rothman, CAA’s Kevin Huvane and Bryan Lourd, UTA’s Jay Sures, and comedians Bill Maher and Sarah Silverman.

Newsom recently appeared with RuPaul in a get-out-the-vote video, and his wife, Jennifer Siebel, is a documentary filmmaker and actress.

While recent polls show Villaraigosa lagging in his effort to garner the No. 2 spot on the general election ballot, he has a list of deep ties in the industry that have helped make him a viable presence on the airwaves. Peter and Megan Chernin hosted an event for him last June, and Activision Blizzard’s Bobby Kotick hosted a reception for Villaraigosa on May 23.

Jim Gianopulos, chairman and CEO of Paramount Pictures, has also co-hosted an event for Villaraigosa, and said that he has known him since he was in the State Assembly. He cited Villaraigosa’s record on transportation, the environment and infrastructure, and his “emphasis on education, first and foremost.”

“He brings that understanding of the ‘art of the possible’ to the issues,” Gianopulos said.

He added that even though the industry is split on support between Newsom and Villaraigosa, it is not to the level of acrimony. “I have met Gavin. I know Gavin. I think they are both certainly great candidates. I just think Antonio is more connected with the issues that are the most pressing.”

Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, said that when it comes to Newsom and Villaraigosa, it’s “definitely the battle of the biographies.”

“There are policy differences between them, most notably on education issues like charter schools, teacher hiring and retention, and student testing. This reflects the broader division within the Democratic Party, and some of these donors may have chosen sides based on these policy differences.”

He added, “But most of them are deciding based on personal familiarity — knowing Villaraigosa from his time as mayor and Newsom through the relationships that his wife has helped him build. And a lot of it is based on storyline, reflecting the age-old beer-drinkers vs wine-drinkers narrative that has represented the two dominant wings of the Democratic Party for decades.”

Trump’s tweeting in support of Republican John Cox appears to have boosted his chances over rival Travis Allen, raising the chances that Cox could outrace Villaraigosa for the No. 2 spot on the ballot.

In campaign ads, Newsom has contrasted his stances with those of Cox, something that immediately raised suspicions that it was a way for Newsom to raise Cox’s profile and forestall a more difficult Villaraigosa challenge in November. For his part, Villaraigosa would benefit from Allen splitting the Republican vote — and his backers have reportedly been sending out mailers invoking Allen’s quest for the governorship.

Another Democrat, John Chiang, is running to become the first Asian-American governor of the state. He has garnered much less support from showbiz, but did collect $20,000 from Universal’s Jeff Shell at the start of his campaign late in 2016.

One surprise is just how little the competitive governor’s race is talked about among L.A. donors. Some of the industry’s most prolific fundraisers are staying out of the fray. Jeffrey Katzenberg has given to Villaraigosa and Newsom.

“There is so much talk about Trump that takes up so much space,” says Mathew Littman, political strategist and speechwriter. “Already, people are coming out here who are thinking about running for president in 2020, and also winning back the Congress, winning back the House is really what people are focused on right now.”
He adds, “There is so much enthusiasm about 2018 and getting people out to vote. People know there is going to be a Democratic governor of California. People don’t know if there is going to be a Democratic House and the Senate in 2018.”

Senate: Actress Candice Bergen, music mogul Clarence Avant, producer Sean Daniel, and producer Jordan Kerner are among those who have donated to Feinstein’s re-election campaign. She started raising money from Hollywood before officially entering the race, including an event at the home of business executive Jon Vein and producer Ellen Goldsmith-Vein last year.

Polls show Feinstein way ahead, but it’s been difficult to discern where de Leon stands in the battle for second place against a field of lesser known challengers.

De Leon has drawn contributions from media mogul Haim Saban, architect Frank Gehry, philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs, actor Daniel Stern, and producer Carolyn Strauss. Casey Wasserman contributed to Feinstein and De Leon’s campaigns.

The race will likely get far more attention if Feinstein and de Leon face off in November — perhaps one of the bigger intra-party battles of this campaign cycle.

House: Republicans hold seats in seven districts that Trump lost in 2016, so California is a big factor in Democrats’ hopes of winning control of the House.

The problem is that in some districts, so many Democrats are seeking office that the result could be a split vote and Republicans garner the top two spots in the general election. That is true in once solid-red Orange County, where hopes of capturing seats filled by retiring congressmen Ed Royce and Darrell Issa and one currently held by Dana Rohrabacher would be dashed if none of the Democrats make it on the ballot.

“It has been on our minds for quite some time,” said Graham Newhall of organizing group Swing Left, which has been focused on overturning a number of the California seats. “Most years, it is not a problem, but this year it is.” He said that “getting out the vote is the best remedy for this problem. The metaphor is ‘a rising tide raises all ships.'”

In recent weeks, “The OC” star Adam Brody canvassed with the group and made a get-out-the-vote video, and Jon Lovett, Jon Favreau, and Tommy Vietor, hosts of Pod Save America, held a fundraising event at the home of Jonathan Glickman and Christy Callahan with a number of other industry figures. Zoe Lister-Jones also held a barbecue event for the effort on Sunday.

Antonio Sabato Jr.: In an interview, Sabato predicts that not only will he make the top two in his bid to unseat Brownley, he will end up with more votes than the incumbent.

He’s running in California’s 26th district, which stretches inland into Ventura County from coastal Oxnard. Hillary Clinton defeated Trump in the district 57% to 35%, and Brownley defeated her opponent 60% to 40%. Sabato faces one other GOP challenger for the seat, Jeffrey Burum.

Sabato has been highlighting his alignment with Trump — particularly on issues like immigration — in an effort to score an upset. He also cites the improving economy and unemployment reaching new lows.

“In 2016, it was a different time altogether,” he said. “No one wanted to vote for Hillary Clinton and no one wanted to vote for Donald Trump. Now they have seen what Donald Trump has been trying to do, and that it has been beneficial.”

Sabato spoke at the Republican National Convention in 2016, an experience that he says gave him a political profile but cost him work in Hollywood and agency representation. “That was devastating for me, being blacklisted. I am not going to stand by and be bullied by Hollywood because they don’t like what I stand for,” he said.

He also said that he is “100%” behind Trump — a position he thinks will resonate even in the district.

“I am going to protect this president,” Sabato said. “Most people I talk to — 80%, 90% — they like what is going on. We didn’t vote for this president to be our Pope, to be our best friend. We voted for the president to take care of business.”

Cook Political Report lists the district as “solid Democratic.” Sabato is banking on that changing and for doing a bit of what Trump did with his celebrity: Infusing the race with a degree of surprise.

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