With the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee promising back in March that he would choose a woman for the job, senators Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar are all seen as leading contenders along with almost-Georgia Gov. Stacey Abrams. Amid other names, there is the moonshot ticket of a Biden and Obama reunion, albeit with different Obama.
“Michelle Obama is a superstar and could be a big asset, but she doesn’t need or want this,” a prominent Tinseltown donor to the Democrats wistfully says of the popular former First Lady becoming the running mate to her husband’s ex-Vice President.
“Michelle would be ideal, but that’s not going to happen,” another politically active insider added, calling it “a dream ticket that will remain a dream.” Michelle Obama has a new Becoming documentary debuting on Netflix on May 6 as part of the couple’s overall deal with the streamer.
With dreams of another Obama aiming for the White House dashed, Hollywood’s deep pockets are putting their hopes and money on either Warren, California’s junior senator Harris or former Georgia state representative Abrams as the top choices right now – with the alchemy of electability and giving the campaign forward momentum as the primary factors.
Many Hollywood donors did not want to go on the record for this report, which speaks to the concern of being on the outs for backing the wrong choice. At the same time, facing increasing questions about a sexual assault claim against the candidate by former Senate staffer Tara Reade, the Biden team today announced the co-chairs of the campaign’s Vice Presidential Selection Committee. As well as ex-MPAA boss and Biden best buddy Chris Dodd, that quartet includes L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, who certainly keeps a close ear to what Hollywood is saying.
Although Klobuchar has the advantage of coming from a Midwestern state and is well liked among moderate industry donors, and appeals to studio and media executives, there is a distinct impression she is just too safe. “She is so impressive, but if you were blah about Biden, you are still going to be blah if Amy is the pick,” says a well-connected insider about the Minnesota senator, who has been a frequent surrogate for Biden over the weeks of the COVID-19 lockdown.
Safe is not the word that comes to mind for the candidate that seems to inspire the most passion among Hollywood elite.
“My heart is with Elizabeth Warren,” says a longtime denizen of the big-bucks Hollywood fundraiser circuit who gave generously to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in past campaigns.
“Elizabeth Warren would be a great pick, would unify the party and would be a great President eventually in her own right,” says another politically active filmmaker about the Massachusetts senator, whose policy stances appeal to the progressive instincts of many in Hollywood’s donor class. “Then again, I worry she could also alienate voters in the heartland as too left wing even as she brings progressives and the (Bernie) Sanders faction into the tent,” adds the director, noting Warren’s weak spot among some Democrats and the Trump-Pence campaign’s practiced attack dogs. “I worry too that Warren is the candidate Trump would love to run against; he can’t seem to get enough of her.”
Despite Warren’s lack of success in the primaries, one bundler said she may be able to drive turnout from the progressive wing of the Democratic party, and also can “energize the base on the other side.”
“If you are looking to light a fuse, and this isn’t about writing checks, because some may grumble but everyone will write checks, Warren is the most exciting,” says a well-heeled producer who has attended many a L.A. fundraiser for many a candidate over the primary season. “Kamala is exciting too, but not like Warren.”
As for Harris, the ex-Golden State Attorney General, she is a known quantity to many in a town built on the dual pillars of relationships and track records, with a CV of electability on the local and state level.
“What I think people felt like before is that they were looking for an inspirational leader. I think that is still important, but maybe that is not the only the only thing that we need at this time,” said Lara Bergthold, political strategist at RALLY Communications. The word that gets bandied about is competence, and she said the view that the Trump administration has bungled the response to the pandemic has only elevated the need for “a woman who can step in and be an incredibly competent manager.”
Despite her 2020 POTUS bid sputtering to a halt after a big kickoff, Harris’ winning sheen has the added benefit of deep ties to the likes of Amazon boss Jennifer Salke, director-producer Reginald Hudlin and spouse Chrisette, as well as mega-donors JJ Abrams and Katie McGrath.
In fact, unlike the mega-donor-shunning Warren, Harris is so close to the Star Wars director and the Bad Robot co-CEO that the duo could be poised to rocket to the top tier of the Hollywood political hierarchy as the heirs to Jeffrey and Marilyn Katzenberg if Harris was to get the VP gig.
And money talks loudly right now in Harris’ favor in the sweet spot between safe and passionate.
Trailing the hundreds of millions raised already by Team Trump and limited on the campaign stump due to the ongoing stay-at-home orders, money has to be a deciding factor – especially with Hollywood being one of the most lucrative sources of funds for the Democrats.
“He (Biden) needs to raise money, and if you process the chemistry of a Biden-Harris ticket, it is a pretty good album cover to attract donors on both coasts,” says an established showrunner who has seen a plethora of hopefuls come through Hollywood over the years looking for cash from the fundraising ATM.
Mathew Littman, a former Biden speechwriter who recently helped launch a pro-Biden super PAC, Win the West, said he also favors Harris. He said she has a “great breadth of experience” and, on the campaign trail, has shown she “can be very dynamic. She has a star quality others don’t have.”
“She would be great as the ‘lead prosecutor’ of the Trump administration,” he said. “Being the Vice Presidential nominee means you are taking it to the opponent, in a way that Joe Biden does not need to do.”
On the other hand, for all the apparent practical support for Harris, Stacey Abrams is a name that almost everyone we spoke with mentioned (often more than once), and for a simple reason: More than any other contender, she is actively campaigning for the job.
On CNN this week, Abrams was in full loyal solider mode, offering a passionate defense of Biden against accusations of sexual assault by a former Senate staffer Reade. Appearing on MSNBC in a full cable news press mode, she also pitched that “Biden knows what he’s looking for in a running mate …he’ll make the right choice.”
A rising and inspirational star in the Democratic party, Abrams is, like Harris, well known in the entertainment community, known for her staunch defense of the state’s production incentive program when she served as minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives. Her campaign for Georgia governor in 2018 drew a starry mix of supporters including Oprah Winfrey, who campaigned and walked precincts for her. Still, Abrams’ gubernatorial bid fell short in a race that is often held up as an example of the perils Democrats face with voter suppression, a consistent worry among industry political veterans.
Certainly, picking an African-American woman from the South would lean into the Democrats’ most active and electorally reliable constituency in a year when voter turnout is key. But this week, influential South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn insisting this week that it isn’t a “must” that a woman of color be the pick. Also, even though suggestions are scant, a number of donors are pointing to the need for someone like a governor with greater experience than the main contenders.
The Trump campaign’s central theme so far about Biden is that he’s too old and too out of touch. Stripping off nuance even in the middle of a global health crisis, they even referred to the 77-year-old ex-VP as a “rotting corpse.” That’s harsh, but that is the ground the Biden campaign will be playing on, and it may put a greater onus on him to select a running mate viewed as ready to step in to do the job.
Here in Hollywood, one heavyweight offered words of respect for Abrams and saw her as a major player in the Democrats’ future – just not the woman for today.
“I need to see a winner to believe that this can realistically be a winning ticket and that means a running mate who has a track record of winning, not almost winning or having elections stolen from beneath them,” they said without a shred of sentimentality after the fiasco of Hillary Clinton’s assumed slam dunk in 2016.
In that vein, besides the huge recognition factor in the homes and wallets of Beverly Hills and West L.A. — given that she represents the state of California, Harris outraised all other candidates in showbiz money early in her own presidential race — Harris’ strengths include having a strong ballot box track record, and she already has played on the national stage. Those factors could mean a lot come the fall.
Still, overlooking her campaign’s tailspin in the weeks before Harris suspended it in December, serious questions remain as to how she and Biden would bond.
After her first-debate attack on Biden over his decades-old position on school busing, some are concerned there is too much bad blood, even though Harris has been an enthusiastic surrogate for the expected nominee since endorsing him March 8. Taking the traditional second slot line as recently as April 26 in a Biden virtual town hall, Harris’ pugilistic streak could also serve as an advantage in the mind of some Tinseltowners in fulfilling one of the traditional duties of a VP nominee: Go on the offense.
Beyond the opinions and desires of Hollywood’s political class, the actual vetting process is said to be especially rigorous, as Biden’s choice will be the first major test as the party’s presumptive nominee.
The next few weeks will mean, as one campaign insider says, “a lot of tough choices.”