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Most politicians make their Hollywood debuts at lavish fund-raisers or intimate house parties. But Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO now running for a U.S. Senate seat in California, made her entrance at an event organized by the Friends of Abe.
For those unfamiliar with the highly secretive club of conservatives in the entertainment business, the name refers to iconic Republican Abraham Lincoln, not Abe Vigoda. Mostly meeting informally at the West Hollywood greasy spoon Barney’s Beanery, the GOP-leaning crowd held its annual blowout in mid-June at a sprawling horse ranch near the Ventura County line. Hosted by “CSI: NY” star Gary Sinise, hundreds of actors, directors and craftspeople came out for the right-wing Woodstock.
The Friends of Abe have been around for a few years now, and conservative frustration with the Democratic control of Washington might be helping them flourish. Indeed, as politicians on both sides of the aisle court such nontraditional groups as the Tea Party and Netroots, the conservative Hollywood clique is hoping for real relevance as Election Day nears.
As one of the group’s biggest names, “Frasier” star Kelsey Grammer’s presence at the gathering was deemed essential enough to be beamed in via video. Former “Weekend Update” anchor Dennis Miller from “Saturday Night Live” delivered sharp Barack Obama wisecracks, Lee Greenwood performed his patriotic brand of country music, and Oscar winner Jon Voight helped emcee. There were Tea Party activists like Andrew Breitbart, Fox News personalities including Greg Gutfeld, politicos like House minority whip Eric Cantor of Virginia and even gay Republicans like “Desperate Housewives” creator Marc Cherry.
About a thousand people shelled out $200 each to attend, but sources said much of the night’s estimated $200,000 take went to cover expenses and catering.
Fiorina received a rousing ovation when she was introduced, but applause doesn’t cost money. Cash for television buys is especially important in the large state of California — during one week in May, candidates spent $10 million.
“Obviously, the FOA folks will vote for GOP candidates like Carly and Meg Whitman,” an attendee who requested anonymity said. “But I haven’t heard the sound of many wallets opening.”
The stakes are as high as ever: Fiorina is battling for Democrat Barbara Boxer’s Senate seat, and former eBay CEO Whitman is up against Jerry Brown in the governor race. Both Democratic opponents are among the right’s favorite punching bags. What’s more, field polls released a month ago saw both races locked in statistical dead heats, with the Dems holding only tiny leads within the margin of error. (A Public Policy Institute of California poll last week also noted the tight races.)
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks national candidates, Boxer received $677,000 from the movie, TV and music industries, while Fiorina’s take from showbiz donors is so small, it doesn’t even register in her Top 20 ranking of business contributors (not surprisingly, her top donors come from the securities and investment industry). The National Institute on Money in State Politics, the only independent organization that tracks donations to gubernatorial races, calculated that — at least through March 17, the most recent available numbers — Brown received $330,000 from entertainment industry sources and Whitman’s take from the sector was $45,000.
Of course, complicated alliances abound in Hollywood politics — it’s easier to figure out what side Angelina Jolie is on in “Salt” than to understand the political motivations of some studio chiefs. Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman and CEO Michael Lynton donated $15,900 to Whitman’s campaign and serves on her finance committee — an about-face from two years ago, when he and wife Jamie were top “bundlers” for Obama’s presidential campaign, hauling in contributions of $200,000-$500,000.
Lynton declined to discuss switching sides to support Whitman, but associates said he and Whitman grew close when they worked at Disney two decades ago.
Another mogul with conflicting allegiances is Jeffrey Katzenberg, who worked alongside Whitman on DreamWorks Animation’s board of directors and forged what he called “a whole new level of collaboration” with Fiorina’s HP during the earliest days of his studio. During the 2005 Consumer Electronics Show, Fiorina described him as “a good partner and even an better friend.” Katzenberg has been far more friendly to Boxer when it comes to finances, however, contributing the maximum. (Katzenberg also declined to discuss the matter.)
Team Fiorina doesn’t hold a grudge.
“It’s no surprise that (Jeffrey) would continue to support Boxer,” Fiorina press rep Andrea Saul said before insisting that Boxer has “been bad for business, especially the entertainment industry” because of tax hikes and trade restrictions. For her part, Boxer highlights plenty of assistance to the industry, from fighting movie-futures exchanges to support for the 2004 JOBS Tax Bill, which gave breaks for movies and TV shows shot in the U.S. Both candidates point to efforts to fight piracy.
Neither gubernatorial candidate has explained plans to help the film and television business if elected. Brown spokesman Sterling Clifford also pointed to his candidate’s anti-piracy record as the state’s attorney general but offered “no specific thoughts” for keeping production from fleeing the state. Reps for Whitman did not respond to calls.
“Unfortunately, our industry lobbies terribly for itself and doesn’t use its clout properly,” producer and longtime Democrat supporter Lynda Obst said. “It’s never been a tit-for-tat thing, where we donate money and then expect something in return. Hollywood has always been more of an ideological community that gives its love away freely.”
One might not find free love discussed much at Friends of Abe functions, but ideology certainly drives these true believers. In fact, with so much money being spent by the GOP candidates — Fiorina has “lent” her campaign $5.5 million of her own money and Whitman has given her own campaign $91 million to date and said she is willing to spend up to $150 million — it’s hard not to wonder what’s really in it for the relatively small group.
Although Hollywood knows celebrity is worth more than cash and many have harnessed that power, the FOA keeps a low profile because it fears a “chilling effect” on showbiz careers, said John Nolte, editor of conservative website Big Hollywood.
“There’s no blacklist in the classic sense,” he said. “It’s more of a peer-pressure thing.”
As a result, few of Whitman’s showbiz donors are willing to support their candidate on the record. One CEO of a major entertainment concern joked, “The fact that I may be the only entertainment exec who made a donation to a Republican in the last decade may be news, but not worth a story.” Needless to say, he declined further comment.
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