California’s U.S. Senate Candidates Seek Support From Hollywood – And Set Up Potential Battle Over Democratic Loyalties

Hollywood Democrats again might be facing conflicting loyalties and affinities, this time the race to fill the seat occupied for more than 30 years by the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

With the March 5 open primary just weeks away, for many Hollywood politicos, the race is just starting to become a big topic of conversation.

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Starting with Monday night’s first debate — sponsored by USC Dornsife, Fox 11 and Politico — that will see Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff, Katie Porter and Barbara Lee and Republican Steve Garvey on the same stage, the coming weeks will see an accelerated schedule of events, advertising and fundraising.

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So far, Schiff has been raising significantly more from showbiz donors than his closest rival, Porter, while both campaigns have highlighted their support from celebrity figures. They include Mark Hamill, who sent off fundraising emails for Schiff, and Adam Scott, who posted a photo of himself and Elizabeth Banks with Porter last fall and the hashtag #KatiePorterForSenate. Lee is farther behind, though she’s drawn backing from LaTanya Jackson and Eve Ensler. Garvey kicked off his campaign later in the year, but his name recognition as a former Dodgers All-Star has helped him move up in the poll.

The top two finishers in the primary will go on to the general election in November, regardless of party affiliation.

While recent polls have shown Schiff with a lead, there seems to a bit of a tight race for the No. 2 spot between Porter and Garvey. “Right now, there is a big undecided factor, particularly up north,” said veteran GOP political strategist Mike Murphy, co-director of USC’s Center for the Political Future. Schiff and Porter only recently launched ads, concentrating on the Bay Area.

In Hollywood, a signature moment of the Senate campaign took place last year, as all of the candidates sought to align with writers and actors as they went on strike. Porter joined the WGA picket line on May 12, Schiff and Lee on May 19. They also returned when SAG-AFTRA went on strike in July. Their support for the actors and writers was a contrast to other Democrats including Gov. Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, who generally remained neutral.

During the strike, President Joe Biden and other Democrats put a pause on entertainment industry fundraising. According to the Federal Election Commission, Schiff in August did collect a $2,500 primary contribution and a $2,000 general election contribution from the political action committee of the Motion Picture Association, which represents studios, albeit not in the contract negotiations.

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Still, Schiff, first elected to the House in 2000, has garnered the endorsement of some Hollywood labor groups, including IATSE, the Teamsters Local 399 and, earlier this month, from Actors Equity. His district represents the areas of Burbank, Universal City, Hollywood and West Hollywood, where some of the studios are located and many employees live. His first ad highlighted his role in taking on Donald Trump — “he held a dangerous president accountable” — something that might resonate with voters as the former president seeks a return to the White House. In his fundraising email, Hamill noted that “the extreme MAGA cronies went after Adam and censured him,” while calling Schiff someone “who will get stuff done.”

Schiff also has collected contributions from Barbra Streisand, Judd Apatow and Christopher Guest, as well as Norman Lear before he died in December. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Schiff’s campaign had collected $392,948 in contributions from showbiz sources through the end of September.

Porter, first elected to Congress in 2018, represents an Orange County district, but even with that distance from the entertainment community, she’s still gained substantial industry support. That comes in part form the attention she has received for her aggressive questioning of witnesses during congressional hearings, with her first ad focusing on her use of a white board, her refusal to take corporate PAC money and effort to ban congressional stock trading. Banks has posted on social media one of Porter’s moments questioning a pharmaceutical executive, writing in 2001, “I can watch Katie Porter’s whiteboard show all damn day.” Porter’s labor endorsements include the California Labor Federation and the Communication Workers of America District 9.

She has received contributions from Damon Lindelof, Rene Russo and Rhea Perlman. In total, she has collected $192,573 from the entertainment industry through September, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. FEC records show several studio executives contributed to her campaign during the strike, albeit not at the CEO level.

Meanwhile, some longtime Democratic donors, like writer-producer Marta Kauffman, have given to Schiff, Porter and Lee. As of now, the race hasn’t fueled a bitter Democratic divide in the industry seen in cycles past, like the 2022 race for Los Angeles mayor and, going quite a ways back, the Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton primary in 2008. In fact, a number of donors said that they were not yet ready to take sides.

There is a lot of watching to see how the dynamics of the race shift after the primary.

Dan Schnur, professor at USC’s Annenberg School as well as Berkeley and Pepperdine, said that Schiff “certainly has an advantage over Porter right now. Nothing is definite, but the profile he developed during the impeachment hearings has been incredibly valuable to him.”

He said that “in an alternative universe and Trump was never president, the race would probably be a dead heat.”

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The other problem for Porter is the presence of Lee in the race.

“In a one-on-one primary between the two of them, Porter has the potential to motivate the democratic base to her benefit,” Schnur said. But on the ideological spectrum, she is between Schiff and Lee, and it is “harder to stake out an ideological position.”

On the issue of Israel, all three candidates condemned the October 7 Hamas attack, but the war has illuminated differences, in ways that local strategists say could impact the primary vote.

In the days afterward, as Israel launched its counteroffensive, Schiff said that Israel had a right to defend itself and there were “no both sides to this attack,” while supporting the Biden administration’s humanitarian pauses. Lee called for a ceasefire, reflecting the views that have triggered protests on the left. Last month, Porter called for “a lasting bilateral ceasefire” that includes the release of hostages and ending Hamas’ operational control over Gaza. While Schiff has had a polling lead, “one thing that could catch him up” among leftward voters statewide “is if Katie decides to push him into a corner on Israel,” Schnur said.

That is assuming that Porter snags the second spot for the general election. Political strategists see a much easier time for either Democrat if their opponent is Garvey. No Republican has won statewide since 2006. In the 2022 race, Sen. Alex Padilla defeated Republican Mark Meuser 61%-39%. In the 2018 and 2016 U.S. Senate races, no Republican even made it to the general election.

At the debate, were Schiff to try to engage Garvey, especially on Trump, it might be just the type of thing that gets TV replay — and leads more Republicans to turn out for the GOP candidate in March, Murphy noted.

If it’s a Schiff-vs-Porter race, though “Republicans and independents will be the deciding vote,” he said. While Schiff would be seen as the more moderate of the two, it’s not entirely out of the question that a chunk of Republicans would “hold their nose and vote for Katie” out of a sense of revenge for Schiff for being such a high-profile foe of Trump’s, he said.

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