The battle for celebrity support — and dollars — is growing in the Democratic presidential primary.
Sen. Kamala Harris’s decision to bow out this week has left a significant void, with her rivals scrambling to connect with the slew of Hollywood heavyweights who were in the California Democrat’s corner. In a Tuesday email to supporters, Harris said, “My campaign for president simply doesn’t have the financial resources we need to continue.”
“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” director J.J. Abrams and his wife had hosted a big-ticket fundraiser for Harris’s presidential campaign in February, while “BlacKkKlansman” filmmaker Spike Lee helmed a money-raising event for her in Massachusetts in August.
Just days before Harris suspended her campaign, former “Mindy Project” star Mindy Kaling appeared alongside the lawmaker in a cooking video. Kaling referred to Harris as the country’s “future president” as she sliced and diced ingredients for an Indian recipe.
“I certainly think Hollywood celebrities are up for grabs,” says Democratic strategist Rodell Mollineau, a partner at Washington public affairs firm ROKK Solutions.
The entertainment industry support amassed by Harris — who as a California senator represents Los Angeles — will likely be dispersed to different candidates, predicts Mollineau, naming former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren as likely benefactors of some of the performers who were rooting for her.
Celebrity backers, much like Democratic primary voters, are desperate to find the candidate most likely to defeat President Trump.
“Hollywood tends to like a fresh face, so I can see them having an interest in [South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete] Buttigieg as well,” says Mollineau.
The Hill reached out to the representatives for several stars who had supported Harris, including Kaling, Lance Bass, “Modern Family’s” Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Anthony Anderson from “Black-ish,” but all were either unavailable or didn’t return a request for comment.
“The key is to get those endorsements as you’re coming out of the gate,” says University of Southern California (USC) history professor Steve Ross. “Because what people misunderstand is the purpose of the celebrity endorsement is not to translate the celebrity’s endorsement into a direct vote. That would assume we’re really all idiots,” adds Ross, the author of “Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics.”
Instead, he says, “If it’s a celebrity you respect, what the main purpose of that endorsement is, is to give the candidate a closer second look.”
While Harris had many Hollywood allies, other candidates have already been raking in the dough from Tinseltown-based donors.
Buttigieg, who was virtually unknown nationally before launching his presidential bid, has racked up lots of artists’ bucks. Sharon Stone donated $5,600 to Buttigieg’s campaign in June, while Michael J. Fox, Jennifer Garner, Emmy Rossum and “Grey’s Anatomy” star Ellen Pompeo all gave $2,800 over the summer, according to Federal Election Commission filings analyzed by The Hill. “Will & Grace’s” Sean Hayes and actress Alyssa Milano doled out $3,000 each to Buttigieg. “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane — who made headlines last year when he gave $2 million to Democrats via a donation to the Senate Majority PAC — shelled out $5,600 to Buttigieg in August.
An individual can donate $2,800 per election cycle, the primary being counted as one and the general election another.
Warren also appears stocked up on star power supporters. Scarlett Johannson — who backed the 2020 candidate in September, saying, “She feels like someone who is thoughtful and progressive but realistic,” — donated $2,800 to her campaign. Jane Fonda, David Hyde Pierce, Amy Schumer, Bette Midler, mega producer Jeffrey Katzenberg also gave the same amount to Warren’s camp.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Biden have also picked up their fair share of Hollywood money. Booker, who’s dating “Rent” actress Rosario Dawson, counts Ben Affleck, producer Shonda Rhimes, Barbra Streisand, Josh Gad and Molly Sims among his donors.
The Biden campaign’s celebrity fanbase includes “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” star Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson, who each gave $1,400 in May, “As Good as it Gets” director James L. Brooks and Dionne Warwick.
But it’s Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) who appears to have the most celebrity support — at least on social media. Big-name stars — including “Breathin'” singer Ariana Grande, Cardi B and Mark Ruffalo — have voiced their enthusiasm for Sanders’s candidacy to their millions of fans.
In August, Cardi B teamed up with Sanders for a campaign video in which she sat down with the longtime senator to discuss issues such as student loan debt and police brutality. The “I Like It” rapper wrote to her 8 million followers on Twitter in July that voters “let [Sanders] down in 2016.”
“Avengers” star Ruffalo endorsed the presidential candidate in a video released earlier this week by Sanders’s campaign, calling him “one of us.”
But the online lovefest for Sanders doesn’t necessarily translate into cold, hard cash for his campaign. While Ruffalo gave $250 in September, the roster of prominent entertainers on the Bernie bandwagon appears to be slimmer than other candidates. In recent months, Rhea Perlman gave $2,700 to Sanders’s campaign, and Milla Jovovich donated $1,000.
“If you’re looking at this from a strategic standpoint, what is more important: having a celebrity endorse you and/or having a Hollywood producer get 10 of his or her other extremely rich friends together to throw you a fundraiser?” asks Mollineau. “I would take Option B over Option A.”
Sanders is leading the primary’s fundraising race, raising $25.3 million in the third quarter. The campaign reported having $34 million in cash on hand at the end of the quarter.
Meanwhile, Warren brought in $24.6 million in the third quarter, bringing her campaign’s total cash on hand to $25.7 million.
Buttigieg and Biden rounded out the top four, with Buttigieg bringing in $19.1 million and Biden raising $15.2 million.
The South Bend mayor has $23.4 million on hand, while Biden has $8.9 million, according to third-quarter reports.
Candidates often have to perform a high-wire balancing act when responding to critics who accuse them of getting cozy with a bunch of “Hollywood liberals.”
“I think it’s an asset that Republicans have been able to exploit pretty effectively,” says Republican strategist Matt Gorman. “They claim to know what’s best for the district, but I think also, they tend to be extremely liberal.”
“Their politics are much more suited with California, and maybe not a toss-up district,” Gorman continued.
The Hill reached out to the Trump campaign about any potential celebrity endorsement they could see in the future.
Ross, the USC professor, warns that endorsements from controversial public figures can backfire.
“For years nobody ever wanted to get Jane Fonda’s endorsement because for years that was used against anybody who even took money from her,” Ross says of the Academy Award winner and anti-Vietnam War activist, who in recent months has been spearheading weekly climate change protests around Capitol Hill.
“The wrong celebrity endorsement can hurt you,” Ross says.
Some Democrats are also wary of the long-term impact of celebrity endorsements, pointing specifically to Trump’s lack of high-profile celebrity support in 2016.
“Let’s look at 2016 with Hillary Clinton,” says Deshundra Jefferson, a former Democratic National Committee official. “How many endorsements would she have, versus, you know, Donald Trump? What did the polls look like? And who ultimately won the White House?”