If these midterm elections prove nothing else, it’s that Hollywood Democrats still haven’t warmed to the super PACs, opting instead to give directly to individual candidates.
Priorities USA, the Democrats’ key super PAC in 2012, was inactive in this cycle, and other independent expenditure committees, such as New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand‘s Off the Sidelines PAC, received a tepid response in industry fundraising circles. While an 11th-hour event featuring Hillary Clinton did raise $2.1 million for the Grassroots Victory Project 2014, that sum was a drop in the bucket compared with the tens of millions of dollars raised by both parties for outside spending groups this cycle.
The Center for Responsive Politics has been keeping a running tally of the country’s top super PAC contributors. According to the latest filings, San Francisco hedge fund manager Thomas Steyer tops the list, with nearly $74 million donated in support of liberal candidates. Republican Jerry Perenchio is 13th on the list, with $3 million going to the American Crossroads Super PAC. By comparison, Jeffrey Katzenberg is 98th, with $450,000 going to the Senate Majority PAC. Two years ago, under Katzenberg’s leadership, Hollywood donors contributed $14 million to super PACs, mainly Priorities USA. This season, the industry has given a little more than $3 million to various independent expenditure committees.
To be sure, the entertainment industry hardly sat out this midterm cycle. The latest figures show that Hollywood has donated more than $33 million to federal candidates this season, a slight increase from its midterm contributions four years ago. In addition to Katzenberg, who contributed $170,000 to individual candidates and Democratic party committees, other major donors included the usual party stalwarts. Haim Saban gave $250,000 to the Democrats’ Senate Majority PAC and $151,000 to individual candidates and committees. Steven Spielberg, too, contributed $250,000 to the Senate Majority PAC and $93,000 to candidates and committees. Barbra Streisand donated about $80,000 to candidates and committees. She also gave $2,000 to Gillibrand’s PAC.
Individually, the top recipients of industry money in this electoral cycle ranged from Georgia senatorial hopeful Michelle Nunn, who picked up $121,000, to Kentucky’s Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Katzenberg favorite, who collected $710,000.
Longtime Hollywood political consultant Donna Bojarsky told The Hollywood Reporter she’s not surprised industry donors have opted to give directly to candidates instead of super PACs.
“I’m proud to say there is still a reluctance in Hollywood to give to independent expenditure committees,” she said. “In some ways, I kind of admire it. Generally speaking, people in Hollywood would support more campaign finance laws than the average citizen. There is a general and well-intentioned wariness of these independent expenditure committees. That said, Hollywood has worked very hard to raise money for the Senate races, and there’s been a lot of money raised for the Democratic committees.”
Traditionally, entertainment industry donors prefer to give to individual candidates they can meet and assess in person, and with whom they can get prized face time to discuss the issues. They also value the control of knowing exactly where their money goes, which is what you get with a candidate but not necessarily with a super PAC.
“There was a lot of money that went to the Democrats,” said one Hollywood insider. “People realize how important this election is. But, compared to the Republicans, the Democrats are behind the curve in giving to super PACs. They’re going to have to step up in a big way for the 2016 election.”
Priorities USA, which rallied the industry under Katzenberg’s leadership during the 2012 presidential election, is expected to be back in action for the Democrats after the first of the year.
One of the upsides of the struggle this season, Bojarsky said, is that “the Democrats will be focused like a laser on winning the White House in 2016.”