By Lisa Richwine
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – On a recent Thursday night, more than 100 people in Hollywood turned their attention to politics. They mingled with Stormy Daniels’ lawyer Michael Avenatti inside a hip piano bar lighted by a sign that screamed “OMG WTF.”
The sign stands for a political action committee that supports Democrats running for state posts in Republican-controlled Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, Wisconsin, Texas and Florida – OMG WTF being the first letters of each state.
But the acronym is also a “sentiment we all feel on a daily basis,” Ben Sheehan, a former producer of “Funny or Die” comedy videos, told the crowd to laughs.
Hollywood has been at the forefront of the political resistance to President Donald Trump, using awards shows, social media and donations to promote progressive positions on issues from immigration to gun control.
Now, the entertainment industry is using its star power and creativity to support down-ballot candidates in the Nov. 6 elections. Down-ballot races are typically state and local positions that are listed on voting ballots below national posts.
This approach is part of the way Hollywood is rewriting its script for political action following Trump’s shock election in 2016.
Every four years, celebrities headline fundraisers and hit the campaign trail for presidential hopefuls. A lengthy roster from Katy Perry to George Clooney and LeBron James endorsed Democrat Hillary Clinton, Trump’s rival.
But A-list entertainers typically have been less visible in midterm elections, and when they have appeared, it has been for high-profile races. On Sunday, pop singer Taylor Swift broke her silence on politics to endorse Democratic candidates for governor and the U.S. Senate in Tennessee.
After Trump took office and started instituting policies such as a travel ban for people from several Muslim-majority nations, Hollywood talent grew eager to push back, according to political strategists, who took a hard look at how the industry could respond most effectively.
VOTERS UNDER 35
Some Hollywood groups were already targeting U.S. Senate and House of Representatives seats as Democrats seek to win control of those bodies from Trump’s Republicans and block his agenda.
So 33-year-old Sheehan started OMG WTF to draw attention to under-the-radar races such as for governor and attorney general.
The group has hosted an improv comedy night for Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and a magic show for Gretchen Whitmer, a candidate for governor in Michigan.
Celebrities including “Glee” star Darren Criss and “West Wing” actor Bradley Whitford have taken part in its events, which are aimed particularly at voters under 35, an age group with historically low turnout.
Whitford said intensifying the focus on down-ballot races was especially important for Democrats.
“On the right, if they lose an election, they run for school board, they run for attorney general and they start a think tank,” Whitford said in an interview. “The left throws their hands up and says the system is corrupt, and ends up not participating.”
“I think we need to cultivate that awareness among progressive voters, especially among the young people,” he said.
At the piano-bar fundraiser, guests sipped Dark ‘n Stormy and White Russian cocktails under a mirrored disco ball while Sheehan explained the significance of down-ballot races.
State office holders can serve as a check on Trump, he told attendees. Attorneys general have the power to sue to block federal laws, while secretaries of state influence voter access. Many governors, Sheehan added, can veto gerrymandered congressional district boundaries that state legislatures reshape once a decade.
“When the federal government is not going to act, we can piece change together state by state,” Sheehan said.
Plus, state leaders become the bench to draw candidates from for future national races, he added.
OMG WTF said it raised more than $100,000 in the first few weeks after its launch this summer. The money is donated to Democrats running in down-ballot races and finances educational material and events on college campuses.
Elsewhere, singer John Legend has urged support for district attorney candidates who favor criminal justice reform, and Alyssa Milano has worked the phones on behalf of candidates including Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum.
DO CELEBRITIES MATTER?
The influence that celebrities have on elections is unclear. After Clinton lost, there were questions about whether some voters were turned off by having Hollywood stars jet into their states and telling them how to vote.
This time, strategists are directing celebrities to races in their home states, where they know people and the local issues and can help raise candidates’ name recognition.
“When it comes to local races, people who have celebrity status and have a genuine connection to the candidate or race, I don’t think that hurts,” said Hannah Linkenhoker, senior political strategist at talent agency ICM Partners and founder of ICM Politics.
Swift and pop idol Rihanna this week made public appeals for people to register to vote.
Amos Buhai, media company Endeavor’s vice president of government relations, said activists in Hollywood will need to measure if registrations translate into votes.
Endeavor is hosting a non-partisan event this month in Nashville where celebrities will walk people to early-voting stations. Organizers hope to use the event to measure how many people actually cast ballots in early voting.
“If it’s successful, it’s something we could see expanding in 2020,” Buhai said.
(Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Cynthia Osterman)