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Midterm Preview: Hollywood Will Be Watching These Key Races

 

In money, time, and attention, Hollywood figures treat this midterm election like no other recent non-presidential year.

Showbiz already has showered more money on federal candidates and committees than any previous midterm, so far giving more than $42 million to federal candidates and committees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

On Thursday, Oprah Winfrey campaigned for Stacey Abrams, seeking to become the first African-American woman elected governor, in Georgia. Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mark Ruffalo, and Cecily Strong are among those who will be at rallies, phone banking, or on the campaign trail. Content creators have produced a flood of celebrity get-out-the-vote videos, and on Monday night, Judd Apatow and Julia Louis-Dreyfus are among the celebrities taking part in the streamed Telethon for America to urge citizens to cast ballots.

Most of the anticipation lies in the Democrats’ fight to retake the House and/or the Senate — a prospect that garners lopsided support within the industry. Democrats have drawn about 81% of the money that those in the entertainment industry have contributed to federal candidates, according to CRP.

A number of showbiz Democrats view the Tuesday vote with a degree of trepidation, given the way that so many showbiz Democrats expected an early-evening Hillary Clinton victory in 2016, but instead witnessed one of the greatest political upsets of all time.

Writer-director Adam McKay said the election is “potentially exciting. We’ll see. We’re living in crazy times. For anyone to make predictions, other than Nate Silver, I would say you are kind of stepping in it and setting yourself up for a giant fall.” He’s worried in particular at “voter suppression,” including restrictions placed on voting in states like Georgia and Indiana.

Ruffalo said he is “hopeful.”

“I just haven’t seen this level of organizing,” he said. “I have never seen it, and I have been politically involved since the first Iraq war.”

Ruffalo, Fisher Stevens, and Bruce Cohen, who have formed the group We Stand United, trekked to North Dakota last weekend for rallies at the Standing Rock Reservation, with Dave Matthews performing, and then the Turtle Mountain reservation for a performance by Billy Ray Cyrus.

The industry’s leftward tilt has not totally obscured Republican activity. Actor and model Antonio Sabato Jr., who spoke at the 2016 Republican National Convention, is seeking to unseat Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Calif.) in a Ventura County district, but the race is still regarded as safely in Democrats’ hands.

Meanwhile, the National Republican Congressional Committee has drawn contributions from such industry figures as Marvel’s Ike Perlmutter and producer Burt Sugarman. In June, Sugarman’s wife, Mary Hart, moderated a Beverly Hills event with Ivanka Trump and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in benefit of a McCarthy-Mike Pence fundraising committee to retain the majority. Coincidentally, that same night Jeffrey Katzenberg was also hosting an event at Beverly Hills bistro Spago that raised $4.5 million for the House Majority PAC, aiming to boost Democrats’ chances of taking back the House.

Here are some of the top races that Hollywood figures will be watching, based on interviews, campaign events, and fundraising.

Senate

Texas: Ted Cruz vs. Beto O’Rourke. No other race has quite captured the imagination of Democrats like this one, due to O’Rourke’s personal charisma and the prospect of scoring an upset in red state Texas. Kimmel, Rian Johnson, Chelsea Handler, John Slattery, and Susan Sarandon are among those who have made contributions to O’Rourke’s campaign, while Willie Nelson and Stephen Stills have been out on the campaign trail for him. Actress Nancy Stephens and director Rick Rosenthal held a fundraiser for him in July, and Sony’s Andy Given and attorney Barney Given hosted an event for him last year. in Los Angeles. As polls tightened and O’Rourke started to close the gap with Cruz, he started drawing national attention. A viral video in which he defended the right of NFL players to kneel in protest helped land him a guest spot on “The Ellen Show.” While there’s a lot of buzz about big turnout in early voting, polls still show O’Rourke several points behind Cruz, who has hammered his opponent for taking out-of-state Hollywood money.

Missouri: Josh Hawley vs. Claire McCaskill. No other congressional candidate has drawn more industry contributions than McCaskill, according to CRP, and it’s for good reason: She’s in one of the tightest races that Democrats are defending, running for reelection in Missouri, a state that has shifted more to the right with each passing cycle and went overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016. McCaskill has drawn contributions from the top echelon of the business, including Steven Spielberg, Katzenberg, Barbra Streisand, and Bob Iger. Universal’s Jeff Shell hosted a fundraiser for her in May, which was headlined by former President Barack Obama. Hawley, the state’s attorney general, has tried to turn McCaskill’s entertainment ties against her, and even accused her of using her office to promote one of Harvey Weinstein’s movies, “Philomena,” because she met with the true-life subject of the film to talk about adoption. Cook Political Report, one of the premiere election forecasters, still rates the race as a toss-up.

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Nevada: Dean Heller vs. Jacky Rosen. One of Democrats’ best opportunities to pick up a Senate seat has drawn heavily from Hollywood’s donor class, including Marcy Carsey and James L. Brooks, and Rosen was among the female politicos on the bill at a big L.A. fundraiser in March hosted by Cliff and Leslie Gilbert Lurie. Heller has attacked Rosen for the event because Jane Fonda, long a GOP target because of her Vietnam activism, was one of the co-hosts. “Don’t let Jacky Rosen’s Hollywood pals BUY Nevada’s Senate seat,” Heller tweeted in April. Yet Heller himself attended a Hollywood-centric fundraiser hosted by MPAA chairman Charles Rivkin to raise money for Republican Senate candidates, and he’s garnered a contributions from such media and entertainment figures as attorney Bruce Ramer and broadcaster Stanley S. Hubbard. Rosen is finishing out the final days of her campaign with an event with Kimmel, who will appear with her on Friday at a rally focused on health care and also featuring Brandon Flowers.

Tennessee: Marsha Blackburn vs. Phil Bredesen. The monumental task of trying to get younger voters to cast ballots in a midterm election got a boost in this state from Taylor Swift. She waded into politics for the first time by endorsing Bredesen, Tennessee’s former governor, who is running a very centrist campaign against Blackburn, a longtime congresswoman who is an avid supporter of Trump. The President responded by saying he likes Swift’s music “25% less,” a curiously restrained dig at the singer. Blackburn is regarded as a friend of the music industry in D.C., in part because of her prominent position on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and she’s one of the few Republicans who has drawn more showbiz money than their Democratic opponent. Swift’s endorsement appears to have led to a short-term spike in voter registration, and she’s since posted on Instagram that she’s already cast her ballot. “We want leadership, not fear-based extremism,” she wrote. There are always doubts about the impact of celebrity endorsements in political races, so this will be a test of whether Swift’s huge following makes a difference.

Montana: Matt Rosendale vs. Jon Tester. Trump is making a visit to Montana on Saturday, hoping to flip the seat to Republicans and deny Tester a third term. J.J. Abrams, Peter Chernin, Spielberg, Katzenberg, Damon Lindelof, and Bill Pullman have contributed to Tester’s reelection campaign, and he was among the vulnerable Democrats who headlined a fundraiser in February hosted by Iger. Even as Republicans have tried to make a lot of noise about Tester’s events with some musicians, like Pearl Jam, the state’s Democrats have continued to draw on celebrity support. “Man, I just dig him,” actor Jeff Bridges told a Great Falls station last week at an event where he gave his endorsement. “When I see him on TV, his strength and his respect, he’s respectfully strong.” The race is still rated a toss-up.

Arizona: Martha McSally vs. Kyrsten Sinema. This open seat following the retirement of Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) is also a Democratic pickup opportunity. Republican McSally, a congresswoman, has embraced Trump, while Sinema has emphasized her centrism in a state that has not had a Democrat elected to the Senate since 1988. Among other things, Sinema has said she will not vote for Chuck Schumer as the next Senate Democratic leader. Sinema has drawn support from such industry figures as George Lucas, Ken Solomon, Max Mutchnick, and Haim Saban.

California: Kevin De Leon vs. Dianne Feinstein. Feinstein has dominated fundraising in Hollywood and elsewhere, so it’d be a shock if De Leon, a fellow Democrat, were to eke out a victory, He has tried to stand out by chiding Feinstein for the way that she handled Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations against Supreme Court nominee Kavanaugh, but that also put the spotlight on his leadership of the State Senate at a time when sexual harassment scandals were becoming public. De Leon is calling for a “new kind” of a leadership and more forceful opposition to Trump, but so far the expectation has been that Feinstein will win another term.

House

California: The Orange County races. This is one of the rare recent midterm elections where California races could really matter when it comes to the balance of power in the House. That is particularly true in districts that include Orange County, where four Democrats have drawn heavily on Hollywood support in their effort to flip seats. Once the home to some of the most conservative members of Congress, the O.C. has been shifting. Even though Republicans still hold a registration advantage, Clinton won the county in 2016, the first Democrat to do so since FDR.

Katie Porter, a University of California at Irvine professor, is challenging incumbent Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Calif.). Gil Cisneros, a former business executive and $266 million lottery winner, is facing Republican Young Kim, a state assemblywoman who once worked for the retiring incumbent, Ed Royce. Mike Levin, an environmental attorney, is running against Republican Diane Harkey, the chair of the State Board of Equalization, in the race to succeed Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who is also stepping away from Congress. Longtime Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) is trying to hold on to his seat against a challenge from Democrat Harley Rouda, a real estate investor.  Issues like health care and immigration have dominated many of the races, but Rouda has highlighted Rohrabacher’s pro-Russia views and supportive statements for President Vladimir Putin.

The Democratic candidates recently got a fundraising boost from Hollywood, when Laura and Casey Wasserman hosted a recent event at their home that raised $600,000.

California: Katie Hill vs. Steve Knight. Hill, a nonprofit executive, has collected more money from Hollywood than any other House challenger, according to CRP. That may be due to proximity: She’s trying to unseat Knight, the Republican incumbent, in a district that covers northern Los Angeles County and part of Ventura County. Her donors have included Rhea Perlman, Rosie O’Donnell, Kristen Bell, Tim Robbins, Ted Danson, Calista Flockhart, and Randy Newman. Democrats now have a slight edge in voter registration, but Hill’s big advantage has been in her ability to raise money, whether from the entertainment industry or through small-dollar donations raised through internet platform Act Blue.

Texas: John Carter vs. MJ Hegar. Carter, the incumbent, is still favored for reelection in this district north of Austin, but his Democratic challenger is drawing interest from showbiz in part because of her personal story: She’s an Air Force veteran who was awarded a Purple Heart, and she wrote about her experiences in Afghanistan in the memoir “Shoot Like a Girl,” which has been optioned for a movie. Portman recently campaigned for her and make note of the popularity of Hegar’s biographical video, which has drawn almost 3 million YouTube views. Ellen Goldsmith-Vein, who is producing the movie based on Hegar’s experiences, and husband, Jon Vein, hosted an event for her in August, and Dana Delany, O’Donnell, Jason Hall, and Carsey are among her donors. Carter has tried to make an issue out of her out-of-state fundraising, and he has been highlighting his conservative credentials in a district that still trends red.

Georgia: Lucy McBath vs. Karen Handel. Handel, the Republican incumbent in this Georgia district, saved Republicans from defeat in the first major special election of the Trump era, in a race in which Democrats poured money into Jon Ossoff’s campaign. Now Handel has a far different type of challenger in McBath, a gun control advocate whose son was killed by a man who opened fire after an argument over the playing of loud music. Handel is still the slight favorite in the district, but McBath has drawn attention in her race from O’Donnell and Julianne Moore. McBath was among the Democratic House candidates who raised money at a recent event organized by screenwriter Billy Ray, with co-hosts that included Katzenberg, John Wells, and John Landgraf.

Minnesota: Dean Phillips vs. Erik Paulsen. A prime pickup opportunity for Democrats in the Midwest is this suburban Minneapolis district, where Paulsen, the Republican incumbent, is struggling to hold on to his seat against a challenge from Dean Phillips, whose family started a well-known distilling company. The race is being treated as somewhat of a bellwether for the midterms, and as such it has attracted a huge amount of outside negative ad spending. Phillips himself produced an attention-grabbing spot featuring Bigfoot, while Paulsen has highlighted his break from Trump even as the President has tweeted his support. Owen Wilson, James Denton, and Streisand are among the Hollywood figures who have donated to Phillips’ campaign.

Governor

Georgia: Stacey Abrams vs. Brian Kemp. Winfrey stepped back into the political arena on Thursday to campaign for Abrams, a sure sign that she is viewed not just as the potential next governor of Georgia, but a rising star of the Democratic party. Abrams has made multiple visits to Los Angeles for fundraisers, and has embraced industry support in a state with a growing sector of film and TV production. Will Ferrell campaigned for her last week, Common and John Legend have lent their support, and Abrams has made the rounds of late-night and daytime talk shows like “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah,” “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” and “The View.” Despite the attention, this is a very tight race, and Kemp has largely characterized her as a liberal out of step with the state’s voters.

Florida: Andrew Gillum vs. Ron DeSantis. Another emerging progressive star is Gillum, who pulled off a surprise primary upset to win the Democratic nomination and now has a very good shot at winning Florida’s governorship. Bryan Lourd, Phil Rosenthal, Fonda, Sarandon, and the Wassermans have contributed to his campaign, and Gillum appeared at a September breakfast fundraiser for the industry-launched WTF PAC at the home of Jonathan Glickman and Christy Callahan. The race has turned quite negative, and Trump has weighed in by calling Gillum a “thief,” a charged claim that came without any evidence. DeSantis has tried to link Gillum to a Tallahassee FBI corruption investigation, but Gillum has said the FBI has told him that he is not the focus of the probe. “Conspiracy theories aren’t true just because President Trump and Ron DeSantis pretend they are,” Gillum’s campaign said earlier this week.

California: Gavin Newsom vs. John Cox. Newsom is heavily favored to win, greatly outraising the relatively unknown Cox. Studios have taken note: Disney, 21st Century Fox, Sony, Comcast, Warner Bros., and Paramount have made $14,000-plus contributions to Newsom’s campaign in recent weeks, while entertainment figures like UTA’s Jay Sures have held fundraisers, and there was even an event on the Universal lot that was hosted by a committee that included Katzenberg, Spielberg, Jeff and Laura Shell, and Ron Meyer. Trump has tweeted his support for Cox, but the Republican has been unable to break through in a state where Democrats are dominant.

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