Showbiz Democrats See a ‘Deluge’ of Midterm Candidates Courting for Cash

Conor Lamb
Gene J. Puskar/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Conor Lamb’s apparent surprise win of a Pennsylvania congressional seat will further energize Democrats’ hopes of taking back the House in November, but it’ll also add to a blitz of candidates descending on the entertainment industry to raise campaign cash.

Los Angeles is a routine stop for candidates across the country, but the difference this year is the sheer numbers of contenders enlisting progressive activists, donors, or any connections to host events.

“I don’t think I have ever seen this many candidates coming to town at every level of government — from mayors, statehouses, to senators, from people who have current races to people who are preparing,” said Donna Bojarsky, a longtime political consultant and organizer in Los Angeles. “This is a new level of activity  that never really existed before.”

“This is a critical time, and now you are seeing a deluge,” she added.

Jon Vein, the former CEO of MarketShare and a prolific fundraiser and activist, said he gets three to five calls a day from campaigns, as he and his wife, producer Ellen Goldsmith-Vein have already hosted multiple events this cycle. But it also works both ways — he also says he has gotten “so many people reaching out, asking how they can write checks, raise checks, volunteer.” He says the enthusiasm level is “maybe only second to [Barack] Obama” when he ran for president the first time.

California is in the midst of its own competitive race for governor, but on Thursday, three candidates running for the top office in other states are scheduled to raise money at the home of Heather Thomas and Skip Brittenham.

They include Stacey Abrams, the Democratic leader in the Georgia General Assembly who is running to succeed Nathan Deal, a Republican; David Garcia, a university professor and Army veteran running in Arizona to unseat incumbent Doug Ducey; and Andrew Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, seeking to succeed Rick Scott and bring the state’s governorship to the blue column.

In addition to the Brittenhams, the event has a long list of co-hosts, including Alec Baldwin, Rashida Jones, Norman Lear, Alyssa Milano, and Tracee Ellis Ross.

In an interview with Variety, Abrams said one topic she expects to address is Georgia’s film and TV incentive program, which has been so successful that Atlanta has become one of the nation’s top production centers. She said she has been a strong supporter of the program since its inception.

“I want to be known as the strongest champion of Georgia’s film industry,” she said, adding that it was “linked to what is happening in California” and that she was excited to be “building partnerships and relationships across the country.”

She won’t be unfamiliar with the L.A. crowd: Several weeks ago, she was in town for an event for her campaign that was co-hosted by Joss Whedon, along with Ross and Jones.

Hollywood has given lopsided support to Democrats for decades, a reliability that has made it a natural stop for the party and its congressional committees. Last month, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and a group of  incumbents facing tough re-election races this year attended an event co-hosted by Bob Iger, the chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Co. They included political moderates Bill Nelson, Claire McCaskill, Jon Tester, Joe Manchin, Joe Donnelly, and Heidi Heitkamp.

That event was held on the same night that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and California Governor Jerry Brown headlined a different gathering in L.A. to win back the House majority.

This cycle, though, more candidates are individually courting donors, including those contenders who first need to win their Democratic primaries before going on to the general election.

“We never used to see down-ballot candidates and now it seems like every other day there is an event here for a congressional candidate from out of state,” said Andy Spahn of Gonring, Spahn and Associates, which represents industry figures such as Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg. “People are excited and invested.”

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, entertainment industry sources have so far contributed $13.1 million to House and Senate candidates and committees, with 73% going to Democrats and 27% to Republicans. That is nearly the split of the last midterm cycle in 2014.

In the wake of Lamb’s apparent victory, Republicans have tried to minimize the loss by expressing doubts that such a Democratic win will be replicated in a Trump district. Their point is that Lamb is the type of centrist Democrat who will have a hard time emerging from a primary season that demands more ideological purity.

What remains to be seen is how that will play out in the Los Angeles donor pool come the general election, and whether the pragmatic concern of winning Congress and statehouses outweighs the desire for alignment on progressive causes. “It is not an uncomplicated issue,” Bojarsky said.

Lamb is anti-abortion, but supports the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. He favors stronger background checks for gun purchases, but stops short of calling for further restrictions. He backed President Donald Trump on steel and aluminum tariffs, and called for choosing someone other than Pelosi as speaker. He still garnered a good number of contributions from the industry, including Sam Waterston, Alyssa Milano, Max Mutchnick, and Amanda Seyfried.

The Veins are planning an event this summer for MJ Hegar, a decorated Air Force veteran who is running for an Austin, Texas, area congressional seat that Cook Political Report still rates as a “solid R.” Goldsmith-Vein is producing the movie based on her memoir, “Shoot Like a Girl: One Woman’s Dramatic Fight in Afghanistan and on the Home Front.”

Vein said he hopes that the tensions between the far-left and center-left that existed in 2016 will subside. The takeaway from special elections so far, he said, was that voters “want bipartisanship. We need people who can reach out to the other side.”

“Doug Jones is a good sign. Conor Lamb is a good sign,” he said. “I am hoping that people recognize that life is about compromise. That doesn’t mean to compromise on fundamental beliefs, but we need to reach out from the middle.”

A key issue to watch is gun control. As they make stops in L.A., a number of candidates running in red states are highlighting the NRA’s outsized influence. An emphasis on gun control could prove to be a draw in courting industry donors and primary voters, particularly in the wake of the student protests following the Lakeland, Fla., school shooting, but it will be a test of just how much the dynamics of the issue have shifted come the general election.

Clarke Tucker, an Arkansas state representative, who is running to unseat incumbent Rep. French Hill (R-Ark.), is due to raise money at an event on March 21, with supporters including Laura Dern and Richard Schiff. The district  includes Little Rock and surrounding suburbs and is rated “likely Republican” by Cook Political Report. Tucker identifies Hill as “Congress’s No. 1 recipient of NRA special interest funding.”

In her Georgia race, where Abrams touts the fact that she has been endorsed by Gabrielle Giffords, the former congresswoman and gun control advocate, and that she has “never received the stamp of approval from the NRA.” She also said the industry should have an interest in the move to strip a tax break for Delta Air Lines after it severed ties with the NRA, something she called “wrong headed and spiteful.” She said it brought up the issue of whether businesses that operate in Georgia had a right to exercise free speech.

“I am the strongest advocate for gun safety in Georgia,” Abrams said.