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Democrats who enter the 2020 presidential race seeking to line up Hollywood donors may not be getting full endorsements anytime soon. Many of the early candidates figure to be untested. But even those who have earned their battle scars on the national stage will need to convince backers of one overriding attribute: that they can beat Donald Trump. 

“It’s the challenge of our time that we have an unstable and incompetent president who is a very real threat to democratic institutions and values,” said Andy Spahn of Gonring, Spahn & Associates, a public affairs firm that represents clients including Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg. “There’s a different vibe this cycle. The discussions [with potential candidates] are always ‘Can you beat Trump?” rather than ‘Are you a 100% or 90% single payer?’” Donors, he said, “are very much focused on winning.”

Haim Saban, who threw his support behind longtime friend Hillary Clinton at the start of her 2008 and 2016 presidential runs, says he’s sitting out the primary process and watching how things unfold, according to his spokeswoman, Stephanie Pillersdorf, who added, “He believes it’s a strong field of Democrats — despite what some are saying.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden said recently he would decide “soon” if he plans to run, and Bernie Sanders reportedly is preparing for a bid. Some donors say they are waiting to see whether Beto O’Rourke enters the race, hoping that the former congressman, who gave incumbent Texas Sen. Ted Cruz a run for his money in the midterms, will emerge as an Obama-esque figure.

The field of Democratic contenders is also likely to feature a number of politicos who have long-standing ties to the entertainment industry, mainly through their treks to L.A. for fundraising. The list of candidates includes Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who announced her intentions Jan. 15. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts recently formed an exploratory committee to test the waters, and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg announced that they are running. Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Sherrod Brown of Ohio also figure as potential candidates, to name just a few.

There are two Californians with networks of support in the industry: Sen. Kamala Harris of California and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. Harris announced on Jan. 21 that she’s running and has been contacting donors in an effort to line up support, according to sources. Garcetti has yet to announce his plans but has made trips to Iowa and New Hampshire in addition to establishing a committee last year to raise money for state parties. “Stay tuned,” he told reporters in Washington on Thursday.

Some fundraisers worry about getting calls from multiple candidates with whom they’ve formed friendships over the years and having to tell them that they’re not ready to support them. “No one wants to get backed into a corner,” said one prominent donor, who did not want to be identified. Some say they are planning to organize meet-and-greets with candidates to hear them out — but with no purse strings attached. A significant chunk of the industry’s donor class may end up initially giving to multiple candidates before deciding whom to endorse.

“There’s a different vibe this cycle. The discussions … are very much focused on winning.”
Andy Spahn

If Biden enters the race this cycle, he would likely be the front-runner based on name recognition alone, but it’s anyone’s guess as to whether one or even two candidates would emerge as his chief rival. Some donors expressed concern that the race could again become one of establishment versus insurgent, as it did in 2016, and in ways that put a spotlight on high-dollar fundraising.

Sanders would likely focus again on the role of money in politics. That suits producer Jamie McGurk, who backed the Vermont senator in 2016 and said it was “highly likely” she’d support him if he got into the race again. “I feel like the populist message of taking on big money, taking on Wall Street, taking on big interests, is the message we have to run on,” McGurk said. “The populist message is what Donald Trump ran on, and sadly, people bought it.”

She fears that donors will get fixated on “predetermining who is electable,” and with the urgency of defeating Trump, many will be risk averse and miss the winning message. “The best way to determine electability is to vote for the person who best represents you and to let the cream rise to the top,” she said.

Entrepreneur Jon Vein and his wife, producer Ellen Goldsmith-Vein, are among L.A.’s more prolific fundraisers. Vein said that he’s looking for a candidate who is in line with policies he supports, who can be “effective,” and who can beat Trump if he “is still in office” — or even runs. 

Vein said that for now, a single candidate will find it difficult to galvanize the donor class. But if Trump winds up being the name atop the Republican ticket, Vein said he wants someone who can go “toe-to-toe in an unconventional election process.” 

Producer Dayna Bochco said that “what we need to find his someone who can appeal to the American public, and bring us back to a normalcy that we lost.”

She hopes that there is a period in the campaign where Democratic candidates have time to “air out their views,” and to “be as aggressive as want to be or as moderate as they want to be, and then let the people vote.” She thinks that will help the process and give donors and supporters time to assess who they prefer.

“I talk to a number of people who think like me,” she said. “We want to win. We just can’t take this anymore.”