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How Hollywood Is Gearing Up for Midterms

The conviction of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort on charges of financial fraud, and the guilty plea of former Trump attorney Michael Cohen to fraud and campaign finance violations, will likely give Hollywood even more reason to engage when it comes to the midterm election. But there’s a warning label: Stay on message, and don’t anger local voters.

Showbiz already has showered federal candidates with $27.7 million, the bulk to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The figure doesn’t include a recent $1 million contribution that Bill Maher gave to help the party win back control of the Senate.

Tom Hanks, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Faith Hill and Tim McGraw appeared in new videos for a get-out-the-vote campaign co-chaired by Michelle Obama, the start of what is likely to be a flood of such spots as Election Day — Nov. 6 — approaches.

Content creators are subtly advising Democrats on the best strategies, and one filmmaker is trekking to states to cut ad spots for down-ballot candidates on the state level. Candidates are drawing on entertainers, including Ben Folds, Jason Isbell and Willie Nelson, to go out on the campaign trail.

The one big caveat to all of this showbiz activity this year: The GOP is seizing just about any opportunity to turn star power into a liability for their Democratic opponents, particularly in the tightest races in red states that Donald Trump won overwhelmingly in 2016.

“Celebrities may win Oscars in Hollywood, but their performances aren’t winning over voters in Fargo and Missoula,” Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, told Variety. “If anything, their extreme, liberal and condescending rhetoric will only push more Americans to vote Republican this November.”

Republican candidates are certainly taking the narrative to heart. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has hammered his opponent, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a rising star among Democrats and favorite of industry donors, just for collecting campaign dollars from Hollywood. After a video went viral of O’Rourke defending the right of NFL players to kneel during the national anthem, Cruz wrote, “Most Texans stand for the flag, but Hollywood liberals are so excited that Beto is siding with NFL players protesting the national anthem that Kevin Bacon just retweeted it. That means all of us can now win Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon!”

Will such attacks work?

They’re actually nothing new, particularly in midterm races, and have in the past been mere distractions, but Republicans seem convinced they will take on extra potency this time around, in part because of the deep cultural rifts exposed in the 2016 campaign and exploited by Trump.

As figures like Rosie O’Donnell and Robert DeNiro cast Trump’s presidency in ever more dire terms, the GOP has responded with its own talking point — that the comments about Trump are “unhinged.” The trailer for Steve Bannon’s next movie, “Trump @ War,” features images of Kathy Griffin holding a fake Trump severed head and DeNiro at this year’s Tonys at the moment when he said, “Fuck Trump.”

In Montana, Republicans last week started airing radio ads attacking Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana) for not personally condemning Pearl Jam, after the group promoted a get-out-the-vote concert in Missoula with an illustrated poster that featured a corpse of Trump lying in front of the White House. Tester tied a fundraiser to the band’s visit.

Bacon himself is appearing in a get-out-the-vote video sponsored by Swing Left, the progressive platform trying to spur participation in House contests. “We’re working to save democracy, to do what you can,” Bacon says in the video. His wife, Kyra Sedgwick, tells Variety that she understands entertainment figures who don’t want to get into the fray but that she can’t stay on the sidelines.

“If I tweet anything about gun control or the environment, I get a lot of backlash, but I don’t care,” she says, adding that while she has been involved in many election cycles, “never before has it felt so urgent.”

Jane Fonda, who has long been a target of the right, recently offered some advice on how entertainment figures should respond in the face of such GOP swipes: Go for it.

“If we are being attacked, it is because we are being effective,” she said in a visit to the Capitol. “We are able to amplify the voices of the people that really need to be heard. That’s really how we have to use our celebrity — to raise the voices of all workers — and we can’t be cowed by the attacks from the right.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ben Platt perform during a rally in Washington, D.C., to support gun control.
Alex Brandon/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Republican pollster and communications strategist Frank Luntz says that the effectiveness of celebrity involvement “depends on what is said, and who says it.”

“When a celebrity emphasizes their roots, where they are from and where they grew up, it lends credibility to their message,” he says, adding that celebrity figures who come from humbler backgrounds should make that point.

He says that the trouble comes when showbiz figures “get very angry, very righteously indignant. That doesn’t win over votes. They have to tone it down. What Hollywood often forgets is that politics is not a Michael Bay film.”

Some industry figures are opting for a subtler approach. A group of several dozen content creators and some actors, such as Alyssa Milano and Ron Livingston, have been holding regular meetings that have included politicians and Democratic National Committee figures and have focused on improved messaging and voter registration. They are largely keeping their activities on the q.t.

After the Orlando nightclub shootings that killed 49 people in 2016, filmmaker Sarah Ullman formed a PAC, One Vote at a Time, and made a video in favor of a Nevada background-check measure to purchase guns. It passed. Last year, she made and donated ads for 19 candidates in Virginia, 10 of whom won statehouse seats. This year, she’s making spots for some 250 candidates in 10 states, focusing on state-level races that aren’t getting a huge amount of attention. Joss Whedon has contributed $280,000 to Ullman’s PAC.

“We’re focused on the state legislature this year because we think that’s where the most progress can be made,” Ullman says, describing a process in which she visits individual states with a crew and interviews four or five candidates per day to produce the spots, with several different versions delivered to the campaign.

“We focus on bringing the best moment from a candidate through in an interview,” she says, adding the the focus is not negative attack ads but positive stories that “move people.”

Political vets say that they’ve seen few other midterms with this level of hyper-local focus, as candidates with few connections to L.A. seek campaign cash and donors respond.  Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is following up a fundraiser he headlined earlier this year for the South Carolina Democratic Party at the home of Showtime’s David Nevins, with one on Sept. 25, to raise at least $1 million, or $100,000 for each of 10 state Democratic party organizations. Jimmy Kimmel will emcee, and the money will be raised via the Democratic Midterm Victory Fund, run by Garcetti’s allies.

Garcetti is certain that they will raise the $1 million.

“I found people very receptive,” he tells Variety. “I think that people understand that politics is local. Politics begins by building a base, and that if we are going to win national elections we have people who we are talking to and collaborating with and organizing alongside in every single state.”

He also says that Democrats have a response to Republican attacks on rivals for taking Hollywood money.

“I think Beto should ask Ted Cruz what he watches when he comes home,” Garcetti says. “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 folks who work in a factory?”

As the fall sprint approaches, it will be hard to avoid the industry’s attempts to influence the results — to highlight a sense of urgency in this year’s races and to temper outcry over Trump.

Michael Moore is releasing a documentary, “Fahrenheit 11/9,” while Rock the Vote and other groups are tapping industry figures for help in get-out-the-vote efforts.

The pace of industry fundraising activity, meanwhile, will only escalate. Jeffrey Katzenberg is among the organizers of what will be one of the bigger events, a fete for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on at the home of Marcy Carsey, on Sept. 24, with Pelosi and a long list of industry figures as supporters including Barbra Streisand and James Brolin, and Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw. O’Rourke and other candidates trying to defy the odds in red states are apparently undaunted by GOP attacks and are expected to make return visits to Hollywood fundraising circles. O’Rourke will guest on “The Ellen Show” next week.

Some Democrats still express concern over the lack of an overarching message, what with candidates focused on a host of issues including healthcare, immigration and the Trump tax cut, which has angered many lower-income Americans who felt left out of the largesse. Meanwhile a raging debate among progressives concerns how to respond to the cascade of news out of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the recent presidential election, and whether Trump was involved: A “culture of corruption,” as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi calls it. There’s also talk about how strenuously to voice calls for Trump’s impeachment, as advocated by billionaire Tom Steyer.

One figure doesn’t seem to be fretting that the party will lack a coherent message. At a fundraiser last May for Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., held at the home of Universal’s Jeff Shell, former President Barack Obama was asked how he thought this year should be framed. According to sources who were there, his answer was simple: Don’t worry about a singular theme. The midterms will be about one thing, he said, and that is a reaction to what is going on in the White House. The message is Trump.

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