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Showbiz Democrats: Hope for Midterms, Mindful of the Message

Polling shows signs of a Democratic wave in the 2018 midterms, dozens of Republicans are retiring from Congress and leaving competitive races, and organizing appears to have worked well for the left in Virginia, New Jersey and Alabama.

But as much as Hollywood’s Democratic donors and fundraisers say they are hopeful, they do have some concerns over how the party will carry its message for the midterms.

It’s a perennial question posed to candidates and their campaign staffs at fundraisers and other gatherings, particularly from industry figures who pride themselves on framing a narrative, but it is especially true in 2018.

One prominent industry bundler called the process of even determining how voters are feeling about President Donald Trump and the Republican majority a bit “schizophrenic,” in large part because so much of the attention has been focused on the daily chaos that seems to be coming from the White House. Republicans are planning to run on the thriving economy and the recently passed tax bill, but just about every day that message is obscured by controversy over a Trump tweet or expletive or the latest revelation from the Russia investigation.

Earlier this week, Tom Steyer, the billionaire hedge fund manager, appeared at a press conference in Washington to announce that he would invest $30 million in organizing young voters for the midterms, but he also said that he would “double” his self-funded campaign effort to push for Trump’s impeachment.

He said that it was imperative for Democrats to win back the House on Nov. 6, but House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has said that she does not think that impeachment “is some place I think we should go.” Congressional Democrats instead have been trying to convey the message that the tax bill disproportionately benefits the rich and major corporations.

“I hope the Democrats keep their eye on the economy, on health care and the tax bill, and they stay focused on that message,” said political and philanthropic consultant Andy Spahn of Gonring, Spahn & Associates, whose clients include Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Democrats need to win 24 seats to retake the House, and candidates already have been courting donors and raising money from Hollywood, which has long been a go-to place for Democrats seeking campaign funds.

So far this cycle, Spahn said, “I have been surprised by the number of events here for House members, not just the familiar names, but names from other states, challengers and other members. There is certainly more energy at that level than I have seen before.”

Ken Solomon, the president of the Tennis Channel, said, “Congress and the Senate are the absolute focus right now. It is clear that there are opportunities, and I am hopeful that there can be a very positive result.”

But he said that is tempered by the sense that “just getting supporters to jump in financially is much, much harder.”

“The mindset has changed. People say, ‘I did all this work to get Obama in… twice, and all of these other candidates as well. We did all this work for over 10 years, and spent all this money, and then you get this [with Trump]. He’s undoing everything we fought so hard for.’  It has made it very hard to reengage people except under extraordinary circumstances.”

Solomon added, though, that the 2016 election and subsequent near daily volatility show that some of the preconceived notions of politics may not apply. “The flip side is that in this day and age, quite literally anything seems possible.”

Randy Bryce, an ironworker and Army veteran who is seeking to unseat House Speaker Paul Ryan in a Wisconsin district, already has trekked to Los Angeles twice for fundraisers. In September, Chelsea Handler and Mary McCormack hosted an event for him, and Frances Fisher and Syd and Linda Leibovich held a fundraiser for him in November.

Among those who have donated to his campaign are Bradley Whitford, Charlize Theron, Carl Reiner, Nancy Sinatra, Kathy Bates, Tom Ortenberg, Bruce Cohen, Nina Tassler and Diane English.

On Thursday, Heather Thomas and Skip Brittenham hosted a fundraiser for Jay Hulings, a former federal prosecutor from San Antonio who is running in the primary for the chance to take on Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), in a seat seen as a prime pickup opportunity for Democrats in that state.

Thomas said that more than 100 people donated to the event, held at their Santa Monica home.

She said that the prospect for Democrats to take back the House was very “doable.” “I feel very good about it,” she said, but she added, “I would feel better if the Democrats could land on a more concise message than ‘A Better Deal.’ They need an optimistic message about prosperity, plus an America for all Americans.”

Her reference to “A Better Deal” is the agenda that Democrats rolled out last year in response to the Republican majority. It outlines a list of policy prescriptions on wages, trade, prescription drugs, the internet, child care and antitrust, among other things.

Others expressed concerns that Republicans will try to make races about Pelosi, and the prospect that she will return to the speakership, as a way of countering the flood of younger Democrats who are seeking seats.

In any case, some bundlers say they already have been fielding requests to host events for candidates at least once a day.

“Usually the House seats that people support are their local representative or maybe a friend of a friend. Right now, people are bending over backwards to support candidates in flippable districts irrespective of geography, and to support candidates in currently blue districts which may be at risk,” said Jon Vein, who was CEO of MarketShare until it was sold in 2015.

He said that so far he is backing about 20 candidates.

Vein and his wife, producer Ellen-Goldsmith Vein, have hosted a number of events, including for Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on the Senate side, and for several congressional candidates, including Mike Levin, and attorney running in the Orange County district held by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who announced his retirement this week.

The Veins are planning one for Eric Schneiderman, the attorney general of New York in early February. He said that he was supporting not just candidates but leadership PACs of incumbents in safe seats, like one started by Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), and organizations promoting democracy more broadly.

“People are really enthusiastic, but I hope not to the point of overconfidence. We have to keep our foot on the accelerator until the very last vote is cast,” Vein said.

When it comes to a message, he thinks it “needs to be tailored for the particular district.” He said that common themes across districts should include how Democratic policies are better for jobs and the company, as well as highlighting how “democratic norms are being eroded by the administration,” including Trump’s attacks on the press and media.

That is the same view of producer Bruce Cohen, said that he thinks “it is time for tailored messaging, more than just one overarching message” that can come across “as sort of a bunch of platitudes, which have not served Democrats well.”

Cohen worked on making get-out-the-vote videos for the Virginia races and the Alabama Senate race, and plans to do the same in many more contests this year.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, showbiz figures have given $4.5 million to Democratic incumbents and candidates so far this cycle, and $1.7 million to Republicans. The figures are as of Nov. 6.

Much more difficult for Democrats is the ability to win back control of the Senate, or even retain the number of seats they currently have. Last month’s surprise election of Doug Jones in Alabama — who received contributions from industry figures like Ed Helms, Jon Cryer, John Hodgman and Cohen — narrowed the Republican majority to just two votes, to 51-49. But Democrats have to defend  26 seats, while Republicans have eight.

Hollywood’s support has gone to a mixture of candidates who are either viewed as 2020 presidential prospects or who face tough re-election fights.

According to CRP, the top recipient of showbiz money so far this cycle is Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who is in a seat regarded as solid for Democrats yet is also viewed as a potential 2020 presidential contender. She has collected $329,234. Industry sources also have given to Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who has collected $240,376 , and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who has drawn almost $200,000. Other top recipients include Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).

“I still think it is possible” to win back the Senate,” Cohen said. “There is a lot of appetite for change right now. It is 51-49, and I think we have a shot.”

As daunting as the task may be for Democrats to win both houses of Congress, some in the industry express near certainty that Democrats will enjoy a wave, driven largely by anti-Trump sentiment.

Beau Willimon, the “House of Cards” executive producer, on Friday tied Trump’s latest comments about “s—hole countries” to the GOP’s prospects in November. “Words matter. Donald Trump & his spineless enablers clearly haven’t learned that lesson. But we’ll teach them loud & clear when we take back Congress in November,” he wrote.

(pictured: Kirsten Gillibrand)

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