The usual Hollywood crowd is stepping up with campaign contributions to President Obama's re-election campaign this year -- but with one important glitch.
Unlike the Republicans, they're not yet tossing big dollars at the new Supreme Court-inspired Super PACs, groups that can collect unlimited amounts from donors so long as the money does not go directly to the candidate. Super PACs fund the nasty negative ads that enable the candidate to stay above the mud-slinging.
The latest numbers (through January) show that groups supporting Republicans running for president have raised larger amounts than the one serving President Obama. With rare exception, the president's BFFs in Hollywood have resisted going big and seem content, for now, to give individual donations.
Under current rules individuals cannot give more than $46,200 to all candidates and $70,800 to all PACs and parties – a $117,000 maximum -- within a two-year cycle. They can give whatever they want to a Super PAC -- Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino owner and one of the wealthiest Americans, has already given the Gingrich Super PAC more than $10 million, with more expected.
Data from the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign finance, shows that of the top 50 donors to Super PACs whose identities are known, only 10 are supporting Obama and other Democrats, and just two of those come from the entertainment community – Jeffrey Katzenberg, who has kicked in $2 million, and Stephen Bing, who gave $425,000.
Bill Maher's $1 million contribution will show up when more recent contributions are counted, along with $50,000 each from director J.J. Abrams, producer Kathleen McGrath and director Lenny Mendonca.
The main Super PAC supporting President Obama, Priorities USA Action, raised a mere $4.4 million, through January.
Among Republican groups, the leading Super PAC supporting Mitt Romney, Restore Our Future, raised $36.8 million; followed by Winning Our Future (Newt Gingrich), $13.1 million; Endorse Liberty (Ron Paul), $3.1 million; and Red, White & Blue (Rick Santorum), $2.8 million.
Even Rick Perry's Make Us Great Again, raised more than the president's, at $5.5 million. Perry left the race in January.
Leading Democratic fundraisers in Hollywood say the Republicans' advantage, for now, reflects two things: One, it was only last month that Obama gave Democrats a green light to fund a Super PAC for him. He has been opposed to their lack of transparency and their open door to corporations and wealthy individuals.
The other issue is a lingering feeling among Democrats that supporting Super PACs costs them the moral high ground on campaign finance reform.
“Democrats are 'schizo' on this issue,” Marge Tabankin, a veteran political activist and former head of the Hollywood Women's Political Committee, told TheWrap. “They don't believe in this stuff. I have clients now who have maxed out in their individual contributions, but they don't feel this is the right thing to do because they believe this is part of the problem.”
She said she's asked them to reconsider, telling them remaining morally righteous could cost them the election. “They're all willing to think about it,” she said.
Meanwhile, Hollywood is playing its usual big role in a Democratic presidential election. So far this cycle, Hollywood ranks eighth, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, with $21 million in checks, 69 percent of them written to Democrats, which is about average for all federal elections since 1990.
As a group, people in the entertainment industry generally trail their counterparts from other industry sectors, such as financial institutions, health-care organizations, lawyers and energy companies.
John Emerson, a Democratic consultant in Los Angeles with close ties to White House, said the Obama campaign is faring well so far in Hollywood. Every Hollywood-sponsored fundraising event President Obama has attended since last year has sold out, exceeding expectations for each one.
“His last trip here our goal was $3 million, and we raised $4 million,” Emerson said, referring to a visit last month that included a rally and concert and dinner at the Holmby Hills home of Bradley and Colleen Bell, producers of “The Bold and the Beautiful.”
About 1,000 people attended each event, with George Clooney, Mila Kunis and Don Cheadle among the headliners at the second.
And the dollars are flooding into Obama's campaign chest: All the usual bold-faced names are writing checks – David Geffen, Steven Spielberg, Leonardo, Clooney, Will Ferrell and Tom Hanks.
Two actors are among the 30-plus co-chairs of the reelection committee, Eva Longoria and Kal Penn, even though Penn – who left his role on “House” to work in the Obama White House -- has contributed no money. Longoria has raised $53,700.
And a growing number of Hollywood heavyweights are turning in big numbers not just as contributors but as bundlers of smaller contributions, among them the Weinstein Company's Harvey Weinstein ($688,025), agent Ari Emanuel ($447,290), Sony chief Michael Lynton ($313,631) and actress (and former Mike Medavoy wife) Patricia Duff ($257,535).
“At the end of the day, the numbers will be greater than they were in the last cycle,” said Andy Spahn, a political consultant whose heavyweight client/contributors include Katzenberg and Spielberg.
Fortuitously for Obama, the robust response is signaling that Hollywood could live with his refusal to support two bills that bear directly on the entertainment industry, the Stop the Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act.
Also of note: While Emerson and others said they expect Hollywood donors to meet or exceed what they donated to Obama' first campaign for president, $9.2 million, Hollywood money is now flowing into key Congressional races that Democrats need to hold or to have a chance of picking up a seat. Republican funders are also looking hard at those races, fearful that none of the presidential candidates can beat Obama.
“We're hitting that point in time where people have gone from looking at exclusively defeating Obama, to the greater good, and taking into consideration the House and the Senate,” Brian Walsh, a former top National Republican Congressional Committee aide, told Politico. “It's not about optimism and it's not about pessimism. It's about pragmatism.”
That shift has not been lost on people like Tabankin, who is encouraging people in the Hollywood community to spread their money around.
“These are going to be hard-fought races that will come down to turnout, and voter enthusiasm really matters,” she said. “People are hopeful, but we know the path to victory will be difficult.”