The media and entertainment industry is a golden goose for Democrats during election seasons but, thanks to Donald Trump, more celebrities have opened their wallets for the first time ever.
High-roller donors like directors Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, and Dreamworks producer Jeffrey Katzenberg have long been willing to shell out cash for their favorite left-leaning candidates. Their contributions have spearheaded the over $27 million effort from Hollywood geared towards the midterms thus far.
But as the Trump administration has separated migrant families along the border, and the president seemingly bucked his own intelligence community at a press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Hollywood that once shied away from politics began to take notice. Instead of waiting for a presidential year to show up in Rock the Vote videos or on the presidential campaign trial, they are choosing to invest in midterm elections.
“So many races have come close, and that’s where money really matters… Celebrities know that they’re not gonna do a lot of good showing up in these races,” former Obama surrogate and Biden speechwriter Mathew Littman said. “This year there are so many flippable races, it’s all anybody is talking about.”
Comedian Jimmy Kimmel made his first ever political donations in the 2017-18 cycle. In late 2017, the comedian got emotional in front of his audience after his son got heart surgery—prompting him to say he was “disgusted” by Congress for letting the funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program lapse while they were debating issues like tax cuts, immigration, and spending. He’s also taken shots at President Trump from his Jimmy Kimmel Live! set, like crafting a mock ad for Trump pushing him to support climate change efforts.
This year, he gave to the campaigns of Texas Democrat Beto O’Rourke—challenger to Sen. Ted Cruz—and Katie Hill in California who is running against a Republican incumbent. The donations total $12,700 so far, according to FEC filings.
Actress Jennifer Lawrence has also joined the fray, but in a smaller capacity. Her first political donation of $2,000 was made in November 2017 to Amy McGrath, Democratic challenger in Kentucky. Lawrence, who is originally from Kentucky, also announced an acting break earlier this year while she’s working with Represent.Us—an organization to get “young people engaged politically on a local level.”
“I’ve always thought that it was a good idea to stay out of politics,” Lawrence told Vanity Fair in February. “It’s not wise, career-speaking, to talk about politics. When Donald Trump got sworn into office, that f*cking changed.”
Some routine presidential year donors have also backed more Congressional candidates before the 2018 midterms. Jennifer Aniston donated to Congressional campaigns for the first time this year, backing challengers to Republican incumbents like Illinois’ Lauren Underwood and Texas’ Gina Ortiz Jones. She also backed Rep. Jacky Rosen’s (D-NV) reelection bid. She previously donated to the presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, but hasn’t otherwise been overtly vocal about politics.
Alyssa Milano, star in the Charmed series and and new Netflix series Insatiable, made her first donations to Congressional campaigns in 2017-2018 cycle after donating to Obama’s campaign. In 2018, she’s donated a total of $7,850 to Democratic newcomers like California candidates Mike Levin, Harley Rouda, and Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts. She also put money behind incumbent Rep. Conor Lamb (D-PA) and Laura Moser’s failed bid for the Democratic candidacy in Texas.
Before then-candidate Trump came on the scene, Milano’s only political tweets blamed both Republicans and Democrats for the “broken” political system and urged everyone to vote. Since March 3, 2016—the day of the Fox News GOP debate—she’s logged hundreds of tweets railing against the president, promoting specific candidates, and supporting causes. She also hosted a “resist and persist” counter-program to Trump’ State of the Union address in January.
Comedian Rosie O’Donnell, who is no stranger to political activism and being vocal about it, has given to Congressional campaigns before—but not at the rate she’s done in this cycle. O’Donnell has given $25,833 to individual Congressional campaigns so far this year, backing House candidates like Iowa’s Cindy Axne and J.D. Scholten, Texas’ M.J. Hegar and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, Georgia’s Lucy McBath, Ohio’s Betsy Rader, Alabama’s Danner Kline, Lauren Underwood and Katie Hill.
She has also backed Senate candidate Democrat Richard Painter in Minnesota and incumbents like Sem. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA). She gave $47,549 to congressional campaigns in 2017, dwarfing the $7,800 she gave in 2014 and the $5,700 donated in 2006.
O’Donnell told The Daily Beast that she often donates to people running against politicians she “hates,” and looks for candidates that are running on policies that she supports.
“I know I don’t have the Mercer money, but I’m inspired. I believe we can flip the House,” she said, referring to the deep-pocketed conservative donors in the Mercer family. “When I donate, it’s often at 4:00 AM—on another night that I couldn’t sleep because of the political climate we’re in. One thing I can control is donating.”
Hollywood-types are also focusing on the other ways they can contribute to political causes besides throwing checks around. In the same vein as Lawrence’s “get-out-the-vote” work, celebrities and those in their orbit are interested in bringing their clout and creative expertise to the political area.
“Fundraising efforts, get-out-the-vote efforts, political organizations tapping into entertainment skillsets—I don’t think that’s been a pattern before,” said Sierra Griffin, Senior Account Executive at Cerrell who formerly provided political and philanthropic counsel to high-profile individuals. “They’re professionals at marketing movies, and starring in TV and music and tech... Why aren’t we tapping into those talents for political and social purposes?”
Littman formed a group of “actors, writers and producers” that focuses on perfecting messaging for the Democratic National Committee and its Congress members. Hannah Linkenhoker, political strategist for Hollywood clientele at ICM Partners, started a Political Action Committee called the Los Angeles Women's Collective featuring “top Hollywood executives, creatives and wives” that want to get more women elected.
“You do see a lot more people giving money. A lot of the big checks are coming from the same people, but we’re looking to engage new people,” Linkenhoker said. “It shouldn’t be the same hundred people in Hollywood who influence politics.”
As to why the entertainment industry is stepping up now, Griffin said the shock of Trump’s 2016 win stripped the Hollywood blue haven of their “level of security,” and now they feel a “pressure to make sure bad things don’t happen.”
Democratic strategist Adrienne Elrod, who helped wrangle celebrity supporters for then-candidate Hillary Clinton, said that many up-and-coming faces in Hollywood were breaking their political silence to show a different side of themselves.
“Since 2016, a lot of celebrities are saying ‘I don’t care. I know what is going to allow me to sleep at night is to endorse issues and causes I believe in,’” Elrod said. She also thought that many celebrities considered being “civically engaged” as “helping” their careers, showing fans that they were a “compassionate person who cares” about the world around them.
When asked if she’d like to see more people in the entertainment industry be more loud about their politics, O’Donnell said “of course.”
“I want to see more people in general do that,” she said. “We’re not a tiny little country. We’re a beacon of democracy in the world, despite the horrific damage… I do think celebrities hold amount of weight in the culture [and] I think everyone should protest.”