Behind the scenes, candidates vie for Hollywood cash while keeping populist cred

From left: Sen. Kamala Harris, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Cory Booker and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — For the Democratic 2020 candidates, there’s gold in the Hollywood Hills. The entertainment industry has long been a key source of campaign cash for liberal politicians, and the current presidential race is no exception. But as the crowded field fighting to replace President Trump goes west, it’s finding a landscape that has undergone seismic shifts with traditional kingmakers competing for influence against small donors and high-tech upstarts. As they navigate these newfound fault lines, White House hopefuls must also walk a delicate tightrope between lucrative A-list fundraisers and the damaging public perception of being too close to the coastal elite.

A senior staffer for one of the Democratic candidates described Hollywood as an “important” source of contributions, but noted it comes with unique complications.

“It is a difficult balance to manage, especially at a time when there is pressure to build a nontraditional campaign operation fueled by just grassroots donations,” the staffer said.

Yahoo News reached out to the campaigns for all of the top Democrats — former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Kamala Harris, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Cory Booker — to ask about their Hollywood fundraising. The only response came from Buttigieg’s national press secretary, Chris Meagher, who said the campaign was not focused specifically on Hollywood.

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, right, holds a baby as he campaigns with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles, May 9. (Photo: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

“We’re making a hard play everywhere, and California is no exception. We’re encouraged by the reaction we’ve gotten from voters all over California, across the state. You’ll see us visiting there a lot. Not just for fundraising, but also for other events and high-profile stops,” Meagher said.

Buttigieg will be doing a fundraising swing through Los Angeles later this month, including a star-studded event at the home of television producer Ryan Murphy.

This year, with a field of over 20 candidates and California coming up early on the primary calendar, Hollywood is more crucial than ever. At this point, you’re about as likely to see a candidate in Beverly Hills as you are in Iowa or New Hampshire.

“We have presidential candidates here two or three times a week for a couple of months now,” said Andy Spahn, a political consultant who works closely with Hollywood megadonors.

“It is on, with no chances of slowing down,” Spahn added.

The candidates aren’t boasting about their visits to Tinseltown. Much of the campaigning in Hollywood is taking place at invitation-only soirees hosted by entertainment industry power players.

Owing to gaps in how political donations are reported and tracked, it’s almost impossible to say exactly how much Hollywood money has gone to help candidates. But it’s substantial. An examination of the most recent reports from the Federal Election Commission showed seven of the leading Democratic candidates took in over a half-million dollars from entertainment industry donors during the first quarter of this year. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Those reports are just from direct campaign committees and do not include outside issue-oriented groups and political action committees that are nominally independent of campaigns.

Single events in Hollywood regularly bring in six-figure sums, and public data at this early stage of the primary is extremely limited. Biden, who has strong support in Hollywood, only entered the race in April; his campaign finances have not been documented at all.

President Obama greets supporters at a 2011 fundraiser at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, Calif. (Photo: Eric Thayer/Getty Images)

Former President Barack Obama collected millions from star-studded events, but the checks also came with mocking jabs from Republicans who accused him of going to L.A. to “hobnob with celebrities while the middle class continues to be squeezed.” When it comes to political fundraising, the entertainment industry lives up to its liberal reputation, with the vast majority of money going to Democrats. Last October, the Hollywood Reporter noted only three people on its list of the most influential players who donated to Republicans. One production company executive who talked to Yahoo News said there are conservatives in Hollywood, but they’re not likely to engage in fundraising.

“There are closet Trumpers everywhere for sure,” the executive said, citing Trump’s high approval rating among Republicans. “They all secretly love what he’s doing, they just know that it’s bad business to say it out loud here.”

Trump’s most recent fundraiser in Beverly Hills in April was hosted by a health care executive, Lee Samson. One of the guests told the Daily Beast there were “no celebrities” in attendance. The Trump campaign declined to comment for this story.

Richard Rushfield, a veteran trade reporter who writes a daily newsletter called the Ankler described the Hollywood fundraising scene as “an intramural competition” for “bragging rights” among industry types who are obsessed with politics.

“These people have a lot of expendable income. ... They’ve got money to burn and they’re all on the same side of the issue. They’re all competing to be the most important in this thing they all talk about all the time,” Rushfield said.

Rushfield presents the most cynical view of Hollywood fundraising: It’s all a battle to have the next president appear in your living room. But other insiders who spoke to Yahoo News suggested the cash flow is motivated by more sincere ideological factors like a desire for action on abortion rights, gun control and climate change.

Jeffrey Katzenberg, left, and David Geffen. (Photos: Charles Eshelman/FilmMagic, Andrew Toth/Getty Images)

“I don’t think it’s about having the right person show up any more,” one veteran producer said. “The Trump election got everyone very activated.”

Spahn, the Hollywood consultant who has helped raised millions for Democratic candidates, agreed.

“We saw a tremendous amount of energy during the 2018 midterm cycle, with lots of new givers and raisers. There were many congressional fundraisers for individual House candidates from across the country, which is something we hadn’t really seen before,” said Spahn. “That energy is still here. It’s almost like 2018 was phase one and this is phase two.”

One thing that everyone agrees on is that the longtime stalwarts of Hollywood fundraising have been joined by some new faces.

“The old guard remains Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen,” said Rushfield. “They were the undisputed kings, and now there’s others.”

Katzenberg and Geffen did not respond to requests for comment. The two were key factors behind the early, multimillion-dollar splash in February 2007 that helped Obama catch fire just as he was beginning his campaign. One Democratic fundraiser said Katzenberg’s backing has the power to make a candidate be seen as “legitimate” in Hollywood.

“There’s power in one person,” the fundraiser said of Katzenberg.

Katzenberg clearly remains a major player, but multiple sources said the current leading influencers in Hollywood’s donor class include filmmaker J.J. Abrams and his wife, Katie McGrath; Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn and his wife, Cindy; Sony Pictures executive Eric Paquette; showrunner Shonda Rhimes; and MGM Studios Motion Picture Group president Jonathan Glickman. Along with the top tier, the lower ranks of Tinseltown donors are changing. Campaign finance reports show contributions from executives at streaming powerhouses like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon mixed in with those from heads of the traditional television and movie studios. The waves of small-dollar donors that have reshaped the political arena have also reached the entertainment industry.

Director J.J. Abrams, right, and his wife, Katie McGrath. (Photo: Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage/Getty Images)

“There was always a tradition of big bundlers in Hollywood, and I think the last election you saw more frequent smaller donor events than they’ve had in the past. It’s a larger pool of people who’ve been activated. ... The traditional mogul bundling that was in the past, it’s still there, but it doesn’t feel like it’s the only way to go,” the veteran producer said.

Given the size of the field, and donors always eager to back a clear winner, Hollywood has yet to unite behind a single candidate. Spahn, the consultant who has advised donors including Katzenberg, said the city’s contributors fit into three main categories.

“There are three silos: one, donors who are all in behind a given candidate; two, donors who are sitting it out until there’s more clarity; and three, donors supporting multiple candidates,” Spahn said, adding, “The smallest of the silos are made up for those who are all in for one candidate, and the largest is for those donors supporting multiple candidates.”

Multiple sources said “triple dipping,” or giving to multiple candidates, has become commonplace among entertainment industry players who either want to cozy up to as many candidates as possible or ensure the strongest challenge to Trump. Katzenberg has given to Biden, Booker, O’Rourke and Buttigieg. Glickman, the MGM Studios executive, has hosted events for Booker, Buttigieg and Harris. Rhimes and Ben Affleck have supported both Booker and Harris. Actor Will Ferrell’s wife, art auctioneer Viveca Paulin, has given to both O’Rourke and Booker. Campaign finance reports show television auteur Michael Schur and actor Bradley Whitford have both given to Warren and Buttigieg.

Harris, who built her career in California and is married to an entertainment lawyer, has clear momentum. She has, by far, the most Hollywood contributions in the publicly available reports, with over $290,000 in donations from a long list of big names including actress and producer Elizabeth Banks, CBS sitcom guru Chuck Lorre and comedian Chris Rock. Harris also has the backing of two of Hollywood’s leading donors, director Abrams and his wife.

Despite his relatively late entry into the race, Biden has shown evidence of strong support in Hollywood. A fundraiser for him in May was hosted by Katzenberg, producer Peter Chernin and CBS Films president Terry Press, among others.

Booker’s boldface name contributors include his girlfriend, actress Rosario Dawson, DJ Steve Aoki and “Lost” co-creator Damon Lindelof. O’Rourke has wooed Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour, actor John Slattery and actress Rooney Mara.

From left: Booker, Taylor Trensch and Rosario Dawson backstage at the hit Tony-winning musical “Dear Evan Hansen” in New York City. (Photo: Bruce Glikas/Bruce Glikas/WireImage)

Sanders and Warren have pledged not to hold high-dollar fundraisers, but they have received support in Hollywood. Warren’s campaign finance reports show over $17,000 from people associated with the entertainment industry, including Whitford, Schur and “The Simpsons” producer James L. Brooks. Sanders has brought in over $30,000 from Hollywood figures, including the actresses Susan Sarandon and Shailene Woodley.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who is polling behind all of these leading Democrats, has still drawn fairly strong support in Hollywood. Jay Sures, the co-president of United Talent Agency, hosted a fundraiser for Klobuchar. She also has received contributions from TV producer Marcy Carsey, former 20th Century Fox CEO Stacey Snider and Dana Walden, the chairwoman of Disney Television Studios and ABC Entertainment. The Democratic fundraiser said people in Hollywood “like” Klobuchar and have taken note of some of her influential backers, but are still worried about her prospects.

“There’s concern about traction,” the fundraiser said of Klobuchar.

While A-list donors may be motivated by ideology and a desire to combat the Trump agenda, there can be no question the city’s contributions are also driven by social pressures and power plays. In that respect, the production company executive said Hollywood is like any other community of political donors. But they acknowledged the one major difference: fame.

“I think it’s as flawed and aspirational as any city,” the executive said of the Hollywood donor class. “Powerful people want to give money, it’s just that here everyone knows their names.”

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