Spoiling for a fight against a president it can’t stand, Hollywood has latched onto Tuesday’s special election for a suburban Atlanta congressional seat, eyeing the contest as a unique opportunity to tarnish Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office.
Many of the entertainment world’s liberal, politically active celebrities have showered Jon Ossoff, the leading Democratic candidate in Georgia’s 6th District, with cash and campaign assistance — a harbinger, some of them say, of a sustained revolt against the president’s agenda.
“The end of democracy looks nigh. I think we all realize we can’t sit back, we can’t take things for granted. We can’t sit back and hope that somebody else does something, we have to do whatever we can, [so] we all gotta get woke, and that’s the mandate,” said actor John Leguizamo in an interview. “I wish there were more outspoken celebrities, athletes, artists, people with high profiles.”
It’s unclear whether the influx of Hollywood support will help Ossoff in the race to replace Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. It might even hurt his chances in the conservative-oriented district, since it helps feed into the Republican narrative about him: that he’s an interloper whose support largely comes from outside the state of Georgia, let alone his district.
“Hollywood is all-in on electing Ossoff,” Republican candidate Karen Handel’s campaign wrote to backers the day after actress Alyssa Milano and other celebrities campaigned in the district for him. “The Democrats have the liberal media and Hollywood celebrities to sing their praises. But we have something better: YOU. It’s critical that we come together now to support Republicans committed to fighting against the Democrats’ liberal vision for America.”
The special election represents the first sustained foray against Trump by leading activists within the heavily liberal industry. But it won’t be the last with a commander in chief quick to mock them and unsparing in his assessments of their efforts to support his opponent in the presidential race he won’t put behind him.
“It is the seat heard round the world. Everyone is watching. All the recent special elections have taken on a certain symbolism of the resistance,” Milano, who has campaigned for Democratic candidates since John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, said in an email exchange. “We’ve now seen what a Trump presidency looks like and how his policies negatively affect every facet of our beautiful country. Supporting Ossoff is a clear message to the GOP that we don’t like the direction Trump is taking this country in, and we will continue to elect more people that will hold Trump and the entire GOP accountable for their policies. I hope we can take this momentum in the 2018 elections.”
Unlike other Republican predecessors who have been the target of Hollywood’s ire, Trump has shown a willingness to respond in kind.
“The so-called ‘A’ list celebrities are all winning tixs to the inauguration, but look what they did for Hillary, NOTHING. I want the PEOPLE!” he tweeted in December. A month later, responding to Meryl Streep’s harsh criticism in her Golden Globes speech, Trump called her “one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood” and a “Hillary flunky who lost big."
In Georgia, Leguizamo and Milano are two in a wide array of actors and actresses who have engaged with an unusual degree of determination — politically active celebrities largely overlook House elections in favor of higher-profile contests. But Hollywood’s conspicuous backing for Ossoff, a 30-year-old filmmaker who’s looking to reach 50 percent of the vote on Tuesday to avoid a runoff, has been impossible to miss.
Ossoff’s record-setting fundraising is in part fueled by tens of thousands of dollars from a wide roster of industry pros, from Kyra Sedgwick to Jane Fonda to Sam Waterston, among others.
Some celebrities have used their considerable platforms to promote the campaign and advance its interests: Performers with large online followings like Debra Messing have tweeted about Ossoff repeatedly, including one on Friday alerting followers about the close of the early voting period. Comedian Chelsea Handler also encouraged Georgians to vote for Ossoff last week, though she got the date of the election wrong.
Many see it as a clear opportunity to slow down Trump, and the activity has picked up even in the past week, since Democrat James Thompson lost a surprisingly close special election contest in Kansas. Never mind that Trump’s name isn’t on Tuesday’s ballot.
Asked about her involvement in special elections like the one in Georgia, actress and longtime Trump sparring partner Rosie O’Donnell, another Ossoff donor, responded via Twitter direct message, “i will say i will do all i can to oppose him and his criminal administration.”
The efforts go beyond cutting checks and making public pronouncements. Actor Samuel L. Jackson rips Trump in a new radio ad aired in the district by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“Your vote goes a long way toward setting things right in this country. Vote for the Democratic Party. Stop Donald Trump, the man who encourages racial and religious discrimination and sexism,” says Jackson in the ad. “Remember what happened the last time people stayed home: We got stuck with Trump. We have to channel the great vengeance and furious anger we have for this administration into votes at the ballot box.”
Milano and actor Christopher Gorham, for their part, took a break from filming in Atlanta to campaign for Ossoff last month, even offering to personally drive locals to vote early.
The flood of activity mirrors a distinct uptick in celebrity Twitter chatter about taking down the Trump presidency — some of them have even taken to chronicling updates in the investigations into his campaign’s ties to Russia and retweeting liberal amateur investigators — a sign of their urgent opposition to the president, and also of the unusually broad public resentment of Trump.
“I think it’s important to use my voice and platform to create movement and positive change in the world. Not necessarily to persuade,” said Milano, noting that she is headed to Montana to campaign for Democratic congressional candidate Rob Quist next week, "but to educate and empower those that feel like their voice doesn’t make a difference. I want people to find what motivates them and if I can be a catalyst for the strength for them to fight for what’s right, then I feel good about what I’m doing."
One thing hasn’t changed in the Trump era: Hollywood remains a hot spot for liberal fundraising. Potential 2020 hopefuls have recently stopped in Los Angeles for precisely that purpose, including New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.
But after the industry supported Hillary Clinton so overwhelmingly over Trump in 2016 — when some of her biggest financial backers included industry magnates like ex-Disney and DreamWorks executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, "Power Rangers" mogul Haim Saban, and IAC executive Barry Diller — liberal celebrities will have to be content for the moment with being on the political outside looking in.
It all adds up to an inflection point for many in the entertainment world, particularly after some of its biggest stars have tried to stay away from public political participation in recent months, wary of alienating vast swaths of their fan bases in the wake of such a polarizing presidential election.
Clinton held behind-closed-doors fundraisers with A-listers like George Clooney and Justin Timberlake, but even her campaign-closing concerts with the likes of Jay Z, Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez rarely included any mentions of her name at all, as the performers instead encouraged attendees to vote against Trump.
“There’s a risk, and you have to be aware of that, it’s a huge risk,” said Leguizamo, pointing to initial uncertainty surrounding late-night television host Stephen Colbert’s critical commentary on Trump, before his show’s ratings surge. “It’s a testament to courage and sticking to your guns. [Because] history will definitely be on our side, we all know that. You can already see the writing on the wall; the other side is just not being moral, standing up for what’s right.”