By Alexandra Jaffe - 09/12/13 09:56 AM EDT
An early rush of celebrity fundraising help for Kentucky Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) is fueling expectations she will become the next big thing for Hollywood liberals eager to make a splash on the national political stage.
Mega-producer Jeffrey Katzenberg said in a recent email to his network of Democratic donors that there’s “no more important election being held next year in this country” than the Kentucky Senate race, and pop giant will.i.am will appear at Lundergan Grimes’s first Kentucky fundraiser in a few weeks.
Katzenberg urged his friends to support the Kentucky secretary of state when she makes a late September swing through California.
George Clooney, a Kentucky native who has dipped into Democratic politics and activism before in the state, is one star observers hope to see support Lundergan Grimes’s bid.
More help could come from actress Ashley Judd, who initially considered running against McConnell herself. Judd has already endorsed Lundergan Grimes, and could be a powerful fundraising force for the candidate.
Several other reliable Hollywood Democratic donors are rumored to be looking at ways they can help.
“Katzenberg and [Steven] Spielberg and [Harvey] Weinstein, a lot of those people involved with DreamWorks and other Hollywood production companies, are gonna raise a lot of money for her. That’s the expectation,” said Kentucky Democratic operative Danny Briscoe.
Democrats, and their donors, have placed McConnell at the top of the 2014 hit list, largely because he’s seen as one of the biggest obstacles to President Obama’s agenda.
Lundergan Grimes, a 34-year-old relative political newcomer, stands to benefit because early polls have shown her competitive against McConnell.
But the Hollywood money will only continue to flow, Democrats warn, if Lundergan Grimes proves herself as a credible threat to McConnell.
Briscoe said the onus is on Lundergan Grimes to build a strong campaign, even if the ultimate focus is McConnell.
“The motivation is, they wanna get rid of McConnell, and it’s any port in the storm to do that. But there’s gotta be a port,” Briscoe said.
The first clear measure of the enthusiasm behind Lundergan Grimes’s campaign finances will come in mid-October, with the release of her first fundraising report.
Two numbers from her campaign will matter: the overall amount raised, an indication of how eager Democrats nationwide are to defeat McConnell; and the amount raised from in-state donors, an indication of how much support she’s picking up in Kentucky.
But Kentucky’s not a wealthy state, and its base of Democratic donors is thin.
That’s where Hollywood donors, and the Democratic Party’s own stars, could make a difference for Lundergan Grimes, who must contend against McConnell’s fundraising juggernaut.
Lundergan Grimes has already shown she’s keen to tap into the network of celebrity donors, employing Diane Hamwi, who was Hillary Clinton’s Western regional finance director in 2008, as her California fundraising chairwoman.
The Clintons themselves are expected to give a hefty boost to Lundergan Grimes’s campaign.
Her father, Jerry Lundergan, is a prominent Kentucky Democrat who previously served as chairman of the state party and as Kentucky chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Bill Clinton has already appeared in a video message at the candidate’s kickoff event earlier this summer.
One of the Clintons was in talks to appear at another fundraiser before the close of the coming filing deadline, but scheduling conflicts caused them to postpone that visit.
Lundergan Grimes’s campaign declined to discuss its fundraising and said only that it was proceeding at a good pace.
Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway’s $2.7 million in-state haul for his 2010 Senate campaign against Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is currently considered the high-water mark for a Democrat running in a federal race in the Bluegrass State.
Lundergan Grimes could easily top that, said Achim Bergmann, who ran the campaign of McConnell’s last Democratic opponent, Bruce Lunsford.
“I’d expect her to raise $4 million in-state with her network, combined with the real belief McConnell can lose — and that belief is growing,” he told The Hill.
But observers are expecting Lundergan Grimes will need upward of $15 million to even match half the amount McConnell is likely to spend.
Attracting Hollywood money to close the fundraising gap, however, presents its own dangers.
Already, McConnell’s team has used the news of Katzenberg’s support in its own fundraising pitch, warning that “out of touch liberal extremists ... want to transform Kentucky and America into their own personal Hollywood, limousine liberal fantasy.”
And as Judd learned, some Hollywood stars come with baggage of their own that could make it difficult for them to make Lundergan Grimes their cause célèbre in 2014.
“It’s becoming clear that Alison Lundergan Grimes got into this race to mingle with the Hollywood elite and make herself famous amongst the national liberal chattering class instead of representing the hard working families of Kentucky,” McConnell spokeswoman Allison Moore said.
One Kentucky Democratic operative, who requested anonymity to speak frankly on the race, was surprised at will.i.am’s inclusion at Lundergan Grimes’s first Kentucky fundraiser.
“I’m a little surprised that, right out of the gate, when the race is still not defined on Kentucky’s terms, that outside help, so to speak, is being brought in so quickly,” the Democratic operative said.
Another risk — stars who are flashy enough to raise big bucks are also flashy enough to draw increased scrutiny and distract from Lundergan Grimes’s main goal: keeping the focus on McConnell.
The distractions of Hollywood influence became an issue for George Clooney’s father, Nick, who ran and lost as a Democrat in Kentucky’s 4th Congressional District in 2004. His defeat was blamed, in part, on controversy surrounding the help he received from his son.
At the time, a spokesman for Clooney’s Republican opponent accused Nick Clooney of relying on his famous son because he “can’t raise the money on his own.”
Nathan Smith, who’s hosting the will.i.am fundraiser for Lundergan Grimes, dismissed suggestions that the pop star’s appearance could fuel Republican attacks on the candidate.
He noted McConnell has controversial ties of his own to various interest groups, and has also had his own big-money fundraisers in Hollywood and elsewhere.
“It’s not like McConnell’s not open to the same attacks. That won’t hold water in Kentucky,” he said.