The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Hollywood, there’s a nerdy new hobby: Flipping the House

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On a breezy day this summer, about 40 people mingled at the Malibu home of a Hollywood television writer, the sounds of the Pacific Ocean crashing outside. They were there to meet and raise money for a political candidate, a typical scene in this go-to region for Democratic campaign cash.

Except that the candidate — Madeleine Dean — is not a national rising star. She is a state lawmaker and first-time House candidate from southeast Pennsylvania.

The host, Bill Chais, co-executive producer of the CBS drama “Bull,” said he has become “maniacal” about helping Democrats take back the House in 2018. But rather than cutting a check to the Democratic Party, he is picking individual candidates — poring over endorsements by Emily’s List and trading political handicapping emails with Hollywood friends.

Hollywood’s fervor for this year’s midterm elections rivals that of recent presidential campaigns, according to Democratic donors and strategists in the Los Angeles area who say the energy is driven by a belief that a Democratic-controlled House can serve as a powerful check on President Trump.

People who work in the television, movie and music industry in the Los Angeles metro area have given $2.4 million to House candidate committees so far this election, with the vast majority going to support Democrats, according to data from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. That is the largest sum from these donors to House Democratic campaigns since at least 2008, and it’s nearly $1 million more than they gave for the 2016 elections.

“We’re raising presidential-election-level dollars to take back the House,” said Andy Spahn, a political adviser to some of Hollywood’s biggest donors.

But the giving is causing concern among some Democratic strategists, who privately worry that the money is being splintered between individual candidates and “resistance” groups rather than the major party committees and PACs, limiting their ability to combat well-funded GOP groups.

In an indication of that trend, members of Los Angeles’s entertainment industry have so far given $300,000 to the Democratic National Committee; during the 2014 midterms, they contributed nearly $1 million, CRP data show.

“I don’t have terribly negative feelings about the DNC, but I don’t look to them for guidance,” Chais said. “I don’t need the Democratic Party to tell me that I’m excited” about particular hopefuls.

The desire to flip the House has blossomed into Hollywood’s nerdy new hobby.

The latest House race ratings by the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election handicapping website, has become part of the vernacular. When they’re not pitching pilots to studios, screenwriters are piling into Mercedes-brand buses to knock on voters’ doors for House races in California, Nevada and Arizona.

Candidates running in key House races out of state — including in Texas, New Jersey and Iowa — are swinging through Los Angeles so frequently that donors have difficulty recalling which recent fundraiser was for whom.

“Flipping the House has become a major, major pastime in Hollywood,” said Donna Bojarsky, longtime political consultant and organizer in Los Angeles. “People are handicapping races. . . . There’s this constant sharing of political updates, much more than there ever was before. People are texting me, ‘Oh my god, what about this candidate in Iowa? How’s that race going?’ ”

National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Jesse Hunt said Hollywood’s increased role “only magnifies how little this cycle’s House Democratic candidates have in common with mainstream voters who will determine the House majority.”

Lara Bergthold, a longtime Democratic fundraiser in Hollywood, said people in the entertainment industry are participating out of an awareness that an election in Pennsylvania or Michigan does not just affect the people in that district when control of the House is in play.

“People in the entertainment industry now care about races where they never lived because they know the outcome of that race has national importance,” she said.

While some donors here are standing by the DNC, which has struggled to bounce back from controversy and defeat in 2016, others are donating to anti-Trump “resistance” groups like Indivisible and Swing Left or directly to candidate committees.

This shift in Hollywood underscores a broader challenge the Democratic Party faces as it works to redefine the party’s message and harness the anti-Trump fervor, as seen in recent primary races in Florida and New York, where liberal candidates pulled off victories against establishment Democrats favored to win.

Some Los Angeles-area donors expressed lukewarm support for the party’s trajectory in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s loss two years ago. So they are giving directly to candidate committees and anti-Trump groups and embracing a more liberal agenda.

Frustrations with the party were on display at a recent DNC fundraiser in Beverly Hills featuring former president Barack Obama, said Angela Wilson Gyetvan, a politically active digital media executive in Los Angeles.

“I personally was asking [DNC Chairman Tom Perez]: Where is today’s ‘Si, se puede?’ ” Wilson Gyetvan said, referring to the rallying cry for Obama’s 2008 campaign.

DNC spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said in a statement that the party welcomes all support to the “Democratic ecosystem” working to flip the House: “We welcome the support of donors large and small to all these Democratic entities and candidates in order to help flip the House, as well as seats up and down the ballot.”

Mathew Littman, a Democratic political strategist in Hollywood, helped form a working group of about 40 actors, directors, producers and writers to help improve the party’s standing in Hollywood. The group — whose members include actress Alyssa Milano and “Veep” executive producer David Mandel — is advising the DNC on messaging and helping with voter turnout.

Littman said the group is not trying to persuade people to donate to the DNC and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “But we’ve explained to people that in order for the Democratic Party to work well, the DNC has to work well,” he said.

Other groups are faring better than the DNC. The DCCC is outraising its Republican counterpart so far this cycle, with more donations from Hollywood than the 2014 cycle. The House Majority PAC, which supports Democratic House candidates, has raised more from Hollywood donors than in the past, but it still lags behind its Republican counterpart.

Hollywood’s heightened engagement this cycle is rooted in part in a desire to see Congress play a greater role in serving as a check on the president. It is not lost on these activists that Rep. Devin Nunes (R), a close Trump ally who oversaw a Russia investigation as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, hails from a district north of Los Angeles.

“Congress has historically served its role as a check, including during Watergate. Here, that is not the case,” said Ellen Goldsmith-Vein, chief executive of Gotham Group, a talent management company. “We need numbers to put a check on Trump. We need the ability to have real investigations.”

Along with her husband, Goldsmith-Vein plans to donate as much as $200,000 this election to support Democratic candidates, including in Texas, and has hosted fundraisers in her central Los Angeles home. She and her friends in the industry are expanding fundraising efforts to down-ballot races in red states, including through a newly formed group called OMG WTF, an abbreviation for Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, Wisconsin, Texas, Florida.

Trump’s rollback of environmental regulations and appointment of federal judges who may curtail reproductive freedom are particularly resonant, said Wendy Greuel, a former city controller and a longtime player in Los Angeles politics. “These issues are, to the entertainment industry, their soul, that many of them have fought for over the years,” she said.

Further bringing House races into Hollywood’s focus: The competition is in their backyard.

Five of the most competitive House races in the country are in California, and four of the five surround the Los Angeles metro area. That has brought greater awareness to the importance of congressional and down-ballot races elsewhere, said Brent Miller, executive producer of Netflix’s reboot of the sitcom “One Day at a Time.”

“We need to take more seats than just those in California, so we’re paying attention to out-of-state races. Outside of California are some of the most important,” Miller said. “The hope is not just to push back on Trump, but to remove him from office. Flipping the House is an essential step toward 2020.”

But this does not necessarily mean lining up behind the Democratic Party’s selections. Among Miller’s favored candidates was Andrew Gillum, an insurgent liberal who sought the Democratic Party’s nomination for Florida governor — and staged an upset in the primary last month, defeating the establishment favorite.