Politically, Hollywood is known for glitzy fundraisers for Democrats, like Steven Spielberg and David Geffen headlining A-list events to benefit President Barack Obama.
But a prominent Virginia Republican, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, has made a play for financial and policy support in Hollywood, tapping into a network of conservatives and finding quiet success.
“Eric has been really incredibly attentive and has a deep personal interest in better understanding this industry,” said Craig Haffner, an Emmy-winning television writer and producer.
“I know that there are plenty of friends here, which is why I try to come here and say, ‘Listen, we need your help.’ There’s no better place for someone interested in selling ideas than this town. This is where the professionals are,” Cantor told PJTV in a 2009 interview.
Republicans cite qualities in Cantor that make him an effective fundraiser everywhere, not just in Hollywood: an ability to quickly connect, a remarkable memory for names and careful preparation on the issues important to each audience he faces.
“He was the first guy who ever came out here and knew what our problems were,” said Lionel Chetwynd, a Cantor friend who has been called the “dean of Hollywood conservatives” by Variety, the entertainment industry trade publication. Chetwynd is a writer, producer and director known for his documentaries and historical adaptations.
“There’s always been Republicans in Hollywood, and now they have a voice in Eric,” said Ray Allen, a Cantor senior strategist.
Another dynamic helping Cantor and other Republicans, according to several sources, is that the tough economic climate, coupled with the threat of online piracy, has focused Hollywood’s collective mind on the bottom line.
“There is a strong effort in the industry to ensure that there’s focused attention on both sides of the aisle,” a film industry source said.
On piracy, Hollywood is backing the Stop Online Piracy Act introduced by House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas). The legislation faces stiff opposition from major Internet companies headquartered in Silicon Valley, including Google.
Cantor has not taken a position on the legislation, but he has backed other policy priorities of the industry, such as finding a way to counter subsidies that other countries provide their film industries.
In an April 2009 acceptance speech for the American Spirit Award from the Caucus for Producers, Writers & Directors, Cantor said, “I have a profound belief in free trade, and so I have always considered quotas and subsidies undermining so many of the truly important things on which we measure freedom,” he said. “But if these practices are to be the habit of other countries, then so be it. We owe it to you to match them subsidy for subsidy, support for support,” according to Variety.
Asked whether that position matched with his vigorous support for the free market, Cantor told Roll Call, “I think that the general sense that America needs to improve its ability to attract and retain businesses is a concept that really is as well-received in Hollywood as it is well-received anywhere in the United States.”
Republicans also are not unwelcome now as they have been in the past.
“In the 1980s, I was blacklisted. Literally blacklisted,” said Chetwynd, a prominent member of Friends of Abe, a network of Hollywood conservatives organized by “CSI:NY” star Gary Sinise. Haffner is also a member of the group, which is reticent about its membership specifics but is nevertheless influential in conservative circles.
“It’s an open secret,” one member explained. “One thing one never wants to do is out someone.”
But the group, whose name refers to Abraham Lincoln, is no secret to prominent Republicans. Sinise and Friends of Abe have hosted every Republican presidential candidate except Mitt Romney for discussions. The group has also hosted Speaker John Boehner (Ohio), Cantor, and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy.
McCarthy, who hails from Bakersfield, Calif., has worked with the entertainment industry since his days in the California Assembly. In the Senate, John Thune (S.D.) is a favorite because he’s such a “good listener,” Haffner said. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) also has met with Friends of Abe.
Chetwynd also said Hollywood offers far more than financial assistance to politicians who seek support there, something on which Cantor has capitalized.
In 2009, for instance, Cantor enlisted speechwriting help from Joshua Sostrin, a Hollywood writer who assisted the legendary Jerry Weintraub on “tweener” flick “Nancy Drew” as well as all three of the “Ocean’s” movies starring Brad Pitt, George Clooney and a host of other A-list actors.
“Experience in speechwriting, performance, all the things that people do out here for a living, those have previously been a private reserve for the Democrats,” Chetwynd said.
Jonathan Axelrod, a Hollywood producer who organizes fundraising events for Democratic Senate candidates, is dismissive of the idea that Republicans have made significant inroads to Hollywood.
He allowed that “I know some people who are very important in the business who are supporting Romney,” but he said that Cantor was an exceptional case and that Friends of Abe was a small fringe group.
The fundraising numbers indicate modest progress for Republicans.
In the 2010 cycle, Beverly Hills (90210) was the fourth-most-lucrative ZIP code for Cantor, following three Richmond, Va., ZIP codes, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Cantor raised $312,400 in the Los Angeles-Long Beach area that includes Hollywood, more than the $307,100 he raised in New York City but less than in Washington, D.C., and his top city by volume, Richmond.
In the 2010 cycle, Los Angeles did not make the list of top five cities for Boehner’s fundraising, and his top 10 ZIP codes were all in Ohio.
In the current, 2012 cycle, however, Boehner has raised $320,750 in Los Angeles-Long Beach, pushing it to his most lucrative city, and he has raised $719,010 in California.
Overall, though, industry-specific money continues to go to Democrats by large margins.
In the 2010 cycle, the “TV/Movies/Music” industry gave approximately $21 million to Democrats and $8.4 million to Republicans. In 2008, the industry gave $38.9 million to Democrats and $10.9 million to Republicans.
Besides the campaign cash, Hollywood offers another allure to lawmakers: glitz.
Whether it’s GOP pollster Frank Luntz’s “Capote-esque” Labor Day party or the Friends of Abe blowouts at a Ventura County farm in the 2000s, insiders cite a strong pull to mingle with the stars. Sinise, Jon Voight, Pat Boone, Tom Selleck and Kelsey Grammer are all part of the scene. And while that might not have the wattage of a Speilberg-Geffen soiree, it’s still a long way from the “blacklist” Chetwynd cited.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.