Manafort con­vic­tion, Co­hen plea give Hol­ly­wood fur­ther fod­der for midterm elec­tions

En­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try raises fund­ing and voices in ef­fort to flip Congress, limit Trump — but GOP makes biz a tar­get

Variety - - Contents - Story by TED JOHN­SON

THE CON­VIC­TION OF FOR­MER Trump cam­paign chair­man Paul Manafort on charges of fi­nan­cial fraud, and the guilty plea of for­mer Trump at­tor­ney Michael Co­hen to fraud and cam­paign fi­nance vi­o­la­tions, will likely give Hol­ly­wood even more rea­son to en­gage when it comes to the midterm elec­tion. But there’s a warn­ing la­bel: Stay on mes­sage, and don’t anger lo­cal vot­ers.

Show­biz al­ready has show­ered fed­eral can­di­dates with $27.7 mil­lion, the bulk to Democrats, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ter for Re­spon­sive Pol­i­tics. The fig­ure doesn’t in­clude a re­cent $1 mil­lion con­tri­bu­tion that Bill Ma­her gave to help the party win back con­trol of the Se­nate.

Tom Hanks, Lin-manuel Mi­randa, and Faith Hill and Tim Mcgraw ap­peared in new videos for a get- out-the-vote cam­paign co- chaired by Michelle Obama, the start of what is likely to be a flood of such spots as Elec­tion Day — Nov. 6 — ap­proaches.

Con­tent cre­ators are sub­tly ad­vis­ing Democrats on the best strate­gies, and one film­maker is trekking to states to cut ad spots for down-bal­lot can­di­dates on the state level. Can­di­dates are draw­ing on en­ter­tain­ers,

in­clud­ing Ben Folds, Ja­son Is­bell and Wil­lie Nel­son, to go out on the cam­paign trail.

The one big caveat to all of this show­biz ac­tiv­ity this year: The GOP is seiz­ing just about any op­por­tu­nity to turn star power into a li­a­bil­ity for their Demo­cratic op­po­nents, par­tic­u­larly in the tight­est races in red states that Don­ald Trump won over­whelm­ingly in 2016.

“Celebri­ties may win Os­cars in Hol­ly­wood, but their per­for­mances aren’t win­ning over vot­ers in Fargo and Mis­soula,” Ronna Mcdaniel, the chair­woman of the Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee, told Va­ri­ety. “If any­thing, their ex­treme, lib­eral and con­de­scend­ing rhetoric will only push more Amer­i­cans to vote Repub­li­can this Novem­ber.”

Repub­li­can can­di­dates are cer­tainly tak­ing the nar­ra­tive to heart. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-texas, has ham­mered his op­po­nent, Rep. Beto O’rourke, a ris­ing star among Democrats and fa­vorite of in­dus­try donors, just for col­lect­ing cam­paign dol­lars from Hol­ly­wood. After a video went vi­ral of O’rourke de­fend­ing the right of NFL play­ers to kneel dur­ing the na­tional an­them, Cruz wrote, “Most Tex­ans stand for the flag, but Hol­ly­wood lib­er­als are so ex­cited that Beto is sid­ing with NFL play­ers protest­ing the na­tional an­them that Kevin Bacon just retweeted it. That means all of us can now win Six De­grees of Kevin Bacon!”

Will such at­tacks work? They’re ac­tu­ally noth­ing new, par­tic­u­larly in midterm races, and have in the past been mere dis­trac­tions, but Repub­li­cans seem con­vinced they will take on ex­tra po­tency this time around, in part be­cause of the deep cul­tural rifts ex­posed in the 2016 cam­paign and ex­ploited by Trump.

As fig­ures like Rosie O’don­nell and Robert Deniro cast Trump’s pres­i­dency in ever more dire terms, the GOP has re­spond- ed with its own talk­ing point — that the com­ments about Trump are “un­hinged.” The trailer for Steve Ban­non’s next movie, “Trump @ War,” fea­tures im­ages of Kathy Grif­fin hold­ing a fake Trump sev­ered head and Deniro at this year’s Tonys at the mo­ment when he said, “Fuck Trump.”

Bacon him­self is ap­pear­ing in a get- out­the-vote video spon­sored by Swing Left, the pro­gres­sive plat­form try­ing to spur par­tic­i­pa­tion in House con­tests. “We’re work­ing to save democ­racy, to do what you can,” Bacon says in the video. His wife, Kyra Sedg­wick, tells Va­ri­ety that she un­der­stands en­ter­tain­ment fig­ures who don’t want to get into the fray but that she can’t stay on the side­lines.

“If I tweet any­thing about gun con­trol or the en­vi­ron­ment, I get a lot of back­lash, but I don’t care,” she says, adding that while she has been in­volved in many elec­tion cy­cles, “never be­fore has it felt so ur­gent.”

Jane Fonda, who has long been a tar­get of the right, re­cently of­fered some ad­vice on how en­ter­tain­ment fig­ures should re­spond in the face of such GOP swipes: Go for it.

“If we are be­ing at­tacked, it is be­cause we are be­ing ef­fec­tive,” she said in a visit to the Capi­tol. “We are able to am­plify the voices of the peo­ple that re­ally need to be heard. That’s re­ally how we have to use our celebrity — to raise the voices of all work­ers — and we can’t be cowed by the at­tacks from the right.”

Repub­li­can poll­ster and com­mu­ni­ca­tions strate­gist Frank Luntz says that the ef­fec­tive­ness of celebrity in­volve­ment “de­pends on what is said, and who says it.”

“When a celebrity em­pha­sizes their roots, where they are from and where they grew up, it lends cred­i­bil­ity to their mes­sage,” he says, adding that celebrity fig­ures who come from hum­bler back­grounds should make that point.

He says that the trou­ble comes when show­biz fig­ures “get very an­gry, very righ­teously in­dig­nant. That doesn’t win over votes. They have to tone it down. What Hol­ly­wood of­ten for­gets is that pol­i­tics is not a Michael Bay film.”

Some in­dus­try fig­ures are opt­ing for a sub­tler ap­proach. A group of sev­eral dozen con­tent cre­ators and some ac­tors, such as Alyssa Mi­lano and Ron Liv­ingston, have been hold­ing reg­u­lar meet­ings that have in­cluded politi­cians and Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee fig­ures and have fo­cused on im­proved mes­sag­ing and voter regis­tra­tion. They are largely keep­ing their ac­tiv­i­ties on the q.t.

After the Or­lando night­club shoot­ings that killed 49 peo­ple in 2016, film­maker Sarah Ull­man formed a PAC, One Vote at a Time, and made a video in fa­vor of a Ne­vada back­ground-check mea­sure to pur­chase guns. It passed. Last year, she made and do­nated ads for 19 can­di­dates in Vir­ginia, 10 of whom won state­house seats. This year, she’s mak­ing spots for some 250 can­di­dates in 10 states, fo­cus­ing on state-level races that aren’t get­ting a huge amount of at­ten­tion. Joss Whe­don has con­trib­uted $280,000 to Ull­man’s PAC.

“We’re fo­cused on the state leg­is­la­ture this year be­cause we think that’s where the most progress can be made,” Ull­man says, de­scrib­ing a process in which she vis­its in­di­vid­ual states with a crew and in­ter­views four or five can­di­dates per day to pro­duce the spots, with sev­eral dif­fer­ent ver­sions de­liv­ered to the cam­paign.

As the fall sprint ap­proaches, it will be hard to avoid the in­dus­try’s at­tempts to in­flu­ence the re­sults — to high­light a sense of ur­gency in this year’s races and to tem­per out­cry over Trump.

Michael Moore is re­leas­ing a doc­u­men­tary, “Fahren­heit 11/9,” while Rock the Vote and other groups are tap­ping in­dus­try fig­ures for help in get- out-the-vote ef­forts.

Some Democrats still ex­press con­cern over the lack of an over­ar­ch­ing mes­sage, what with can­di­dates fo­cused on a host of is­sues in­clud­ing health­care, im­mi­gra­tion and the Trump tax cut, which has an­gered many lower-in­come Amer­i­cans who felt left out of the largesse. Mean­while a rag­ing de­bate among pro­gres­sives con­cerns how to re­spond to the cas­cade of news out of spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the re­cent pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, and whether Trump was in­volved: A “cul­ture of cor­rup­tion,” as House Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi calls it. There’s also talk about how stren­u­ously to voice calls for Trump’s im­peach­ment, as ad­vo­cated by bil­lion­aire Tom Steyer.

One fig­ure doesn’t seem to be fret­ting that the party will lack a co­her­ent mes­sage. At a fundraiser last May for Sen. Claire Mc­caskill, D-MO., held at the home of Uni­ver­sal’s Jeff Shell, for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama was asked how he thought this year should be framed. Ac­cord­ing to sources who were there, his an­swer was sim­ple: Don’t worry about a sin­gu­lar theme. The midterms will be about one thing, he said, and that is a re­ac­tion to what is go­ing on in the White House. The mes­sage is Trump.

On Mes­sage Lin-manuel Mi­randa and Ben Platt per­form dur­ing a rally in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to sup­port gun con­trol.

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