Secret Meetings, Big Players: Who Hollywood's Underground GOP Wants for President
Jerry Perenchio backs Carly Fiorina, Mary Hart likes Marco Rubio and Ann Coulter stumped for Donald Trump in Beverly Hills, as a stealth GOP operates outside the industry spotlight.
A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
In April 2013, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus secretly met about a dozen writers, directors and producers in a suite at Loews Hollywood Hotel. The topic: How could the industry's quiet network of conservatives help elect more Republicans?
GOP fans in Hollywood tend to hold their political activities close to the vest. This reporter was thrown out of a fundraiser for Rick Santorum at a $35 million mansion on Sunset Boulevard after celebrity attendees feared they would be "outed" as supporters. But a conservative network does exist even within the famous liberal enclave, and since the meeting with Priebus, the largely underground effort has picked up steam as the field of 2016 presidential hopefuls has narrowed. "They're holding back to see who emerges. No one wants to back a loser," says Roger Simon, the Oscar-nominated writer of Enemies, A Love Story and co-founder of PJ Media, a conservative website.
In May, before Carly Fiorina officially became a candidate, Jerry Perenchio, the billionaire who helped build Univision, hosted a fundraiser for her (at $8,000 a couple) at his Beverly Hills house. In September, actor-singer Pat Boone hosted Mike Huckabee at a house in Beverly Hills for $500 a person, though some influencers in Hollywood attended free, according to insiders. On Oct. 22, a Los Angeles fundraiser for Marco Rubio will be co-hosted by former Entertainment Tonight host Mary Hart and her producer husband, Burt Sugarman. At a Ben Carson event in Anaheim in September, "several celebrities who are shopping for a candidate" showed up, says Shawn Steel, the RNC rep for California, though he declined to name them, citing "bias in Hollywood."
One of the more surprising Carson supporters is Kanye West, generally perceived as a progressive, who has called the neurosurgeon candidate "brilliant" and even rapped for him during a 30-minute phone call, according to insiders.
Carson supporters also are hosting viewing parties of Gifted Hands, the 2009 TV movie that stars Cuba Gooding Jr. as the doctor. And while there's already a documentary about him online, another is in the works.
Dallas actress Morgan Brittany, who co-founded Politichicks, a new-media company focused on politics and parenting, has appeared at events nationwide with several GOP candidates but has so far declined requests to fundraise, which she’ll accept when the field is narrower.
“There’s not as much discontent among Hollywood conservatives,” she says. “They want to see change, but in the heartland conservatives are angry. They’re done," she says.
Morgan also says that there is more support for Cruz than meets the eye, but it might be particularly problematic in Hollywood to outwardly support the conservative senator from Texas, a Tea Party favorite.
“If an actor comes out for Ted Cruz, they’ll be demonized,” she says. “I was an actor for 50 years. I’ve done my Hollywood thing. They can’t hurt me. But I feel sorry for people who can’t speak their mind.”
Joe Piscopo, who regularly lampooned President Ronald Reagan on Saturday Night Live in the 1980s, also has been asked by several candidates to help raise funds, though he’s keeping his powder dry for now.
These days, Piscopo hosts a talk show for conservative radio company Salem Media Group, and he has interviewed candidates Fiorina, Donald Trump and Lindsey Graham thus far.
“The Republicans have a rich field despite what Democrats say,” he says. “If you know The Donald, you like The Donald. Fiorina and Rubio are both electable, and you think Cruz is too right wing — until you meet him.”
Gerald Molen, the Oscar-winning producer of Schindler’s List, Jurassic Park and Rain Man, says he’s also getting invitations to fundraisers, but hasn’t attended any, and he warns conservatives who aren’t yet established in Hollywood to tread lightly. “A lot of political discussions are still being done behind closed doors, but it is slowly opening up,” says Molen. “The left is very vindictive, so caution at this point might be best.”
There now are gatherings all over town like the meeting with Priebus, though good luck getting invited, unless you're a proven friendly. Friends of Abe, a 2,500-member private conservative group founded by actors Gary Sinise and Kelsey Grammer along with writer-producer Lionel Chetwynd, has hosted many of the GOP hopefuls, including Trump, Rand Paul, Huckabee, Fiorina and Carson. The group does not fundraise, nor will it endorse, but after a viewing party of the Sept. 16 GOP debate, "the buzz among attendees was that Fiorina gave the strongest performance," says FOA executive director Jeremy Boreing.
Boreing says there is no consensus candidate, though there are specific qualities industry conservatives are seeking. "Moderation is not an effective tool in Hollywood. There's no passion for a candidate who is reluctant to fight," he says. "The night of the debate, Fiorina showed she is just as good a showman as Trump, who has forced all of the candidates to focus on stagecraft. That's something we haven't seen since Reagan."
Ann Coulter also is working behind the scenes to push her favorite candidate: The Donald. The author and commentator dined in September with Clint Eastwood (who recently had read her book Adios, America), and the next night she pitched Trump to a dozen writers, directors and producers at a Beverly Hills restaurant, say sources.
Coulter declined to discuss the dinner parties but tells THR she took two prominent TV producers skeptical of Trump to see him at FOA, and both came away fans. THR reached out to one of them, but he declined comment and asked that his name not be revealed. Trump, in fact, is receiving a modicum of support from Hollywood's nonconservatives, including producer Dana Brunetti (The Social Network), who twice voted for Barack Obama. "Although I don't agree with the majority of what he says, I like Trump and the fact that he's a disrupter and changing the game," he says
One of the earliest candidates to woo Hollywood conservatives was Ted Cruz, who met with a dozen writers and producers at a Burbank restaurant Nov. 8, 2013, after appearing on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. Three months later, he spoke to FOA. The day after the recent debate at the Reagan Library, he met with supporters — some from Hollywood — three separate times. "Hollywood conservatives know it's tough to swim against the tide, and Cruz was the first insurgent to do so," says Chetwynd. "There would be no Trump without a Cruz."
Among the few in Hollywood who are stumping actively and openly for the GOP is writer-director David Zucker (Airplane!, The Naked Gun), who created a $45,000 online video spoofing Obama's nuclear deal with Iran that starred more than a dozen actors who are FOA members (see the video below). He says he is creating a PAC to raise money for several more videos that will target liberal positions.
Elsewhere, attacks on Hillary Clinton are in the works. Clinton Cash, the best-selling book by Peter Schweizer, will be turned into a movie in February by Steve Bannon, an investment banker turned producer who owns a piece of Seinfeld after having backed Castle Rock Entertainment during the 1990s. Separately, David Bossie is working on a sequel to 2008's Hillary: The Movie, famous for precipitating the controversial Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which critics say allows unlimited campaign funds.
Then there’s Tim Allen, who told FOX411 at the Summer TCA press tour in August that his ABC sitcom, Last Man Standing, will “drill” Hillary Clinton. He made good on the promise with the Oct. 2 episode, where his character, Mike Baxter, is seen opening mail and the following exchange takes place between him and his daughter, Eve, played by Kaitlyn Dever.
Mike: Wow. Hillary Clinton’s asking us for money. Will her string of mistakes never end?
Eve: The hits keep on coming, but she’ll never top Benghazi. That’s her "Stairway to Heaven."
Mike: Yeah, that’s the kind of screw-ups that happen when you spend all your free time deleting e-mails.
One of the most outspoken conservative celebrities for several years running is Jon Voight. While he declined to comment for this report, it’s a safe bet that his activism will continue. On Oct. 12, for example, he was on Glenn Beck’s radio show promoting his new film, Woodlawn, the true story of high-school football players grappling with desegregation in 1973 Alabama, when the conversation turned — as it invariably does — to politics.
The former 1960s liberal radical lamented that 1960s liberal radicals are ruining the country. Like so many others, he doesn’t seem ready to endorse anyone.Voight ended the interview by criticizing Obama: “People have been kind of stunned with the administration’s lawlessness. … On a daily basis we’re losing pieces of America.” And in the December issue of Cigar Aficionado, he'll slam progressivism as a "devious term" created as a substitute for "communist." Voight also tells the magazine: "There are a lot of conservatives in Hollywood, and they're not very welcome."
More than anything else, Hollywood conservatives are simply seeking a candidate who can win the presidency, says Mark Vafiades, an actor and chairman of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County. "There are some whom I don't like, but even if our nominee is one of them, the Republican is always better than the Democrat," he says. "I'd even go for Trump."