The industry is orchestrating a behind-the-scenes blitz that will inject millions into the campaign coffers of candidates across the country — from the outlying exurbs of Houston to the strands of Newport and Huntington Beach, Calif.
So far, the entertainment industry has pumped nearly $21 million into House and Senate races this election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That places it 21st on the list of some 80 industries tracked by political donations, according to data, but Hollywood’s high-profile status and tight-knit network make it an attractive draw for candidates.
And entertainment dollars are likely to get much more important as November approaches, as Democrats aim to win back the House and the Senate and the GOP does everything it can to preserve its majorities.
The night of June 18 was an early measuring stick of showbiz’s influence in the midterm elections: Jeffrey Katzenberg was the host of a Democratic fundraiser at Spago, with guests Nancy Pelosi and Jerry Brown.
Republicans were busy too: In Beverly Hills, Mary Hart moderated what was billed as a “fireside chat” fundraiser with Ivanka Trump and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
The recent California primary was a relief for Democrats worried they’d be shut out of a series of key House races, but it also was sobering in that turnout fell short in key districts. “The playing field has shifted so much that everyone is rejiggering strategies,” says Hannah Linkenhoker, senior political strategist at ICM Partners. “People were a bit alarmed by the high Republican turnout in these competitive House races. It’s a signal that Republicans are not going to sit back and let the blue wave happen to them. They are fighting back.”
MarketShare co-founder Jon Vein, who, along with his wife, producer Ellen Goldsmith-Vein, has hosted recent events for Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), says that “people getting a little nervous is not a bad thing” if it spurs more individuals to donate or get involved in campaigns. “Do I personally believe there is going to be a blue wave?” he says. “Yes. Do I think we should take things for granted? No. Do I think there is enthusiasm? Absolutely.”
During the primary season, candidates have flooded email in-boxes and lobbied well-connected insiders to host events. Few weeks go by without some D.C. star on the bill for a fundraiser or a political happening. A big difference this year from cycles past is the number of out-of-state politicos who are hitting up donors for campaign cash, even for races far off the national radar. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti — considering a 2020 presidential bid — headlined an event in May for the South Carolina Democratic Party at the home of Showtime’s David Nevins and his wife, Andrea. South Carolina is a key early state in the 2020 presidential race, and Democrats there raised about $100,000 for this year’s contests.
“I think that everyone is getting fatigued by the donation asks,” Linkenhoker says. “There have been so many candidates, more so than we have ever seen before.”
But part of that changes as the midterms enter a new phase, with state primaries having narrowed the playing field. “Sophisticated political donors can take a strategic approach to where they give their money,” Linkenhoker notes.
There’s probably good reason for the fusillade of fundraising requests. Figures show Hollywood donors are writing checks again after a period of post-2016 exhaustion and some despondency. The nearly $21 million for congressional races this cycle puts the industry on pace to equal or exceed the outlay of the 2014 midterm election.
The biggest Hollywood bankroller so far is Seth MacFarlane, the outspoken entertainer and creator of “Family Guy,” who chipped in $2 million in April to the Senate Majority PAC, dedicated to helping Democrats win the upper chamber. Media mogul Haim Saban, who is among the industry’s most prolific donors, has given $1 million.
Katzenberg’s fundraiser raised $4.5 million and benefited the House Majority PAC and featured Democratic candidates in targeted California races. Tickets started at $25,000 per person and ran up to $250,000. Katzenberg said it’s imperative this year to step up politically. “America’s best days are ahead of us,” he tells Variety, “but only if Democrats win back the House and put an end to the divisiveness and intolerance coming from this White House.”
A number of Senate candidates are teaming up to raise money through joint fundraising committees, allowing them to hold a single event where donors write bigger checks to be split among them all. Walt Disney CEO Bob Iger hosted a fundraiser for six vulnerable Senate Democrats in February, and one or more joint fundraising events are expected this year. “As a general proposition, people want to find the smartest and most efficient way to spend their money,” Vein says.
Jim Gianopulos, the chairman and CEO of Paramount, says it’s “inspiring” to see the amount of involvement this year and the number of fundraisers. “It speaks to the level of engagement of the community,” he says. “You can’t attend them all, and you can’t support them all, but it is important that people are very aware of the issues and who the candidates are who will do well for our country.”
Trump’s presidency and Republican dominance in Washington hasn’t changed where Hollywood is giving. According to CRP, 76% of industry money has gone to Democrats and candidates at the federal level so far this cycle, compared with 24% for Republicans. That’s a slight dip from 2016, but about on par with the last midterm.
The fervent anti-Trump sentiment has helped drive industry participation in politics, but there’s also a great deal of interest in electing more female candidates to office. MGM’s Jonathan Glickman and writer Christy Callahan hosted an Emily’s List reception at their home in February for four California congressional candidates. Two of them, Katie Hill and Katie Porter, advanced to the general election.
There has been consternation over whether Democrats need a unifying message beyond opposition to Trump. Those concerns have been tempered somewhat by the special-election victories of Doug Jones in Alabama and Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania, and the notion that even if the midterm ends up being a referendum on Trump, the candidates themselves must tailor their campaigns to their localities.
For their part, Republicans have been hammering Democrats for taking industry money, a common line of attack among conservatives eager to paint their rivals as out of step with regular citizens. Josh Hawley, the Missouri attorney general trying to unseat Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), has criticized her Hollywood ties.
It’s hardly stopped McCaskill, or any other Democrat, from seeking showbiz money. Nor has it stopped Republicans from doing the same. In April, Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) tweeted an animated video in which his Democratic challenger is placed on a red carpet, accompanied by the words “Don’t let Jacky Rosen’s Hollywood pals BUY Nevada’s Senate seat.”
Yet just three days later, Heller headlined a fundraiser in Los Angeles for the National Republican Senate Committee that was hosted by MPAA chairman Charles Rivkin and other studio chiefs.
Alyssa Milano has volunteered for a number of campaigns this cycle, walking precincts and driving voters to the polls in the special-election campaigns of Jon Ossoff in Georgia, Rob Quist in Montana and Jones in Alabama, to name a few. She says Republicans target the entertainment industry as a way to characterize Democrats as elitist.
“I feel like this has been a very smart messaging tool the Republicans have hung their hat on, to demonize the entertainment industry, to say that they are ‘out of touch,’” she says. But face-to-face reality is different: “In the years I’ve been doing this, I never have gone anywhere where people have said anything [like that]. People are just so appreciative that people in the entertainment industry care what’s going on in their community.”
The next few months will see another wave of fundraising and mobilizing, with more discernment over which races to invest money and time in, says Donna Bojarsky, longtime Hollywood political consultant.
“With every incremental hope that we can take back the House,” she says, “people will be that much more engaged.”