California shells out for Biden as Hollywood fundraisers go virtual

Andrew MARSZAL
·4 min read

Joe Biden sharing a split-screen with George Clooney. Kamala Harris joining a online quiz with the Marvel superhero film stars.

Virtual fundraisers with Hollywood and Democratic leaders have combined with powerful anti-Donald Trump sentiment to prompt an unprecedented flood of donations in California -- the nation's wealthiest state, long seen as the party's election cash cow.

As the race for the White House reaches its blockbuster finale, both campaigns are mounting breakneck tours of swing states, and are notably absent in the liberal Golden State where Biden leads Trump by over 30 points.

But while Californians can't sway the race by voting, Democratic insiders say they have never witnessed such an extraordinary boom in fundraising and celebrity activism -- even as a deadly pandemic pushes events online.

"It's been unbelievable. My inbox is filled with emails every day from all various entertainment industry people -- the business side, the creative side, all over... music, movies, TV, everything," said Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist Bill Carrick.

"Writers, directors, actors, producers, agents -- all that world is even more intensely activated," he added.

Stars including the casts of "Seinfeld," "Happy Days" and "The West Wing" have held online reunions.

"Co-chair" tickets for a Hillary Clinton talk hosted online by Amy Schumer on Wednesday stretched to $50,000, while "young activists" could attend a virtual read of "Wet Hot American Summer" with Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks and other stars of the movie from $50.

"The pandemic created the virtual fundraiser on Zoom, primarily, and those are wildly successful," said Carrick. "All those kinds of things have really exploded."

Steven Maviglio, a Sacramento-based strategist, believes California Democratic fundraising dollars are "almost double where they were four years ago" -- a high baseline, given Hillary Clinton's strong support in 2016.

California "has always been viewed as a sort of ATM," he added. "But this year, the candidates really haven't come here much to do in-person events. The money's coming to them."

- 'Star power' - 

California is the biggest contributor to Biden's war chest.

The $150 million Biden has raised in the state is one-fifth of his candidate committee total, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Federal Election Commission records show California donations to Biden totaling a slightly smaller $130 million -- reflecting the complex nature of campaign financing. 

But both figures dwarf the $60-odd million Trump has collected in the state.

Outside Silicon Valley, Tinseltown remains "the base of a lot of money, of people that care passionately about politics" and provides vital "star power," said Maviglio.

Biden is aided by strong Hollywood contacts he forged as senator and vice president -- he appeared onstage at the Oscars in 2016.

Director Steven Spielberg ($5.1 million) and actor-producer Seth MacFarlane ($3.6 million) are among top individual Democratic donors this year, according to CRP data.

Despite initial fears the pandemic would stifle fundraising by ending glitzy dinners and cocktail parties, many strategists say virtual events have made the essential process of harvesting dollars easier.

Celebrities, free from complex filming schedules, don't all have to be in the same place at the same time. They are spared dressing up, shaking hundreds of hands, and battling notorious traffic. So too are wealthy, busy donors.

"There's nothing normal about 2020," said Maviglio. "In the past, one of the reasons people gave was to go to an event where they could see a celebrity. Now they can do it in the comfort of their home.

"They can't get the autograph, can't get the picture, but they can still make the connections."

- California conservatives - 

Hollywood is seen as overwhelmingly liberal, and 88 percent of the entertainment industry's $110 million donations went to Democrats this year, according to the CRP. 

But its executives have a long history of donating to Republicans, from MGM's Louis B. Mayer in the 1920s to Ronald Reagan's extensive showbiz network.

Still, politicos on both sides told AFP that big entertainment industry donations for Trump were down, with the president skipping Los Angeles on a recent California fundraising dash hosted by 28-year-old tech multimillionaire Palmer Luckey.

"In the entertainment business, in particular, Trump's just toxic," said Carrick.

Conservative fundraiser Anne Dunsmore suggested this year's Black Lives Matter protests boosted Democratic donations from Hollywood while "other corporations that might have played on the Republican side are more reticent."

"It may be possible in individual cases," said Carrick.

"But the most important thing is they just don't like Trump's politics."

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