In The Know

Celebrities turn to Georgia Senate runoffs in wake of 2020 election

Celebrities who went full throttle for the 2020 presidential election are already showing signs they will put the political pedal to the metal once again for the Georgia Senate runoffs.

With control of the Senate hanging in the balance, stars have already lined up to try to tip the scales for their preferred candidates as Democratic challenger the Rev. Raphael Warnock faces Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R) and Democrat Jon Ossoff takes on Sen. David Perdue (R) in the Jan. 5 election.

“The amount of both enthusiasm and intentionality being directed in the state is incredible. It’s overwhelming,” said Howard Franklin, a Democratic strategist whose firm, Ohio River South, is based in Atlanta.

“I think that the fact that the control of the Senate comes down to the state is absolutely going to draw a tremendous amount of celebrity engagement,” Franklin said.

With less than two months before the vote, the celebrity influence is already being felt. “The Big Sick’s” Kumail Nanjiani and “One Tree Hill” actress Sophia Bush are among the co-founders of Win Both Seats, an organization supporting the Peach State’s Democratic candidates. Win Both Seats didn’t return a request for comment about celebrity involvement in the Senate race, but Bush made a fundraising pitch for the group earlier this month, saying, “Give today and let’s win the Senate! There’s a LOT on the line!”

Famous names had already been pouring money into the Georgia Senate contests well before Election Day. George Clooney maxed out with a $10,000 donation to the Democrats’ Georgia Federal Election Committee back in June. “Bad Boys for Life” star Will Smith also gave nearly $4,000 to the same group in August. A-list actors including Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo and Joaquin Phoenix are backing Warnock with donations, while actor Jason Bateman, “This is Us” star Mandy Moore, Patricia Arquette and “The West Wing’s” Bradley Whitford all shelled out money to Ossoff’s campaign.

“This could point the direction of the country for the next 10 years, so it’s just a very, very big deal,” says Brad Jenkins. The former Obama White House staffer and co-founder of the nonprofit Run AAPI and its campaign #TheNew says he’s already working on several projects that will include outreach to Asian American voters in Georgia.

The trick for candidates with celebrity supporters, Jenkins says, is how to utilize them and avoid “cringeworthy” moments. Campaigns can no longer get away with preachy star-packed montage videos. In his past work, Jenkins, who had a hand in the Emmy Award-winning 2015 “Between Two Ferns” episode that featured former President Obama talking to Zach Galifianakis — says success is “not about getting celebs in front of a green screen and saying, ‘Young people, you better vote.’ That just doesn’t work anymore.”

“It’s not just let’s just randomly get a celebrity to ‘do a thing.’ It’s about being smart about who are those celebrities who have a following and are trusted voices in Georgia,” Jenkins says.

For Democrats, a pair of Senate victories in Georgia would cap off a repainting of the political landscape there — Biden turned the state blue as the first Democratic presidential candidate to win it since 1992.

Laura Young, an assistant professor of political science at Georgia Gwinnett College, warns that, along with the benefits of fundraising dollars and voter outreach, celebrities bring potential pitfalls for political campaigns.

“Celebrities are extremely helpful, they do play a role. But they’re oftentimes not viewed as credible sources,” Young said.

“Particularly if you’re on the right end of the political spectrum, Hollywood elites are looked at as the liberal left, coming to Georgia and imposing their politics and their political views on individuals,” she added. 

Jenkins said that “Republicans 100 percent traffic in the same stuff — they just can’t get any celebrities.”

“Republicans love to say, ‘Oh these out of touch Hollywood elites,’ but then in the same breath they’re retweeting Jon Voight or Chachi from ‘Happy Days,’ ” he said with a laugh, referring to the “Deliverance” star and actor Scott Baio, both vocal supporters of President Trump. “If they could get an A-list celebrity, are you kidding me — of course they would want a big star.”

Janelle King, a GOP consultant in Georgia and an honorary co-chair on Loeffler’s campaign, said the problem isn’t high-profile figures using their platforms to push their political agendas, it’s “when you have people trying to influence the election that’s going to impact a state that they don’t live in.”

“It’s not just about being a celebrity. It’s about being a celebrity who thinks they know what’s best for us,” said King, the co-founder of Speak Georgia, which hosts town hall-style talks around the state.

Unlike this month’s election, the Georgia races will be the only game in town in January, increasing what was already a high level of attention.

For Franklin, the Atlanta-based Democratic strategist, there’s value in performers trying to push voters to the polls: “I think it’s less about an endorsement per se and I think it’s more about calling attention to where this race is headed.”

“I do think some celebrities have meaningful standing on issues they advocate on. They’ve got highly contextualized and oftentimes famous stories that give them credibility and standing to reach out to individuals on these issues, and they’ll be persuasive,” Franklin said.

With the clock ticking before January, several stars have already started shining a spotlight on the Senate showdowns. “Will & Grace” star Debra Messing, an outspoken Trump critic, tweeted this month, “Georgia needs some love! Please help us flip Georgia blue!” And “All of Me” singer John Legend got into a public back-and-forth with Mark Cuban after the Dallas Mavericks owner suggested potential runoff donors should “reconsider” giving money to politicians and instead donate to food banks.

“I get that politics is annoying and contentious, but the bottom line is that the Senate flipping would be far more impactful than a food bank donation,” Legend said in a tweet this month. Legend, who supported President-elect Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential race, added, “I plan to err on the side of donating to help Ossoff and Warnock win. I hope it works. It will be better for the country.”

There’s also a question of momentum: whether entertainers in left-leaning Hollywood who gave it their all to land Biden in the Oval Office will have simply already emptied their bank accounts and their enthusiasm. Democrats need to win both races to bring the Senate to a 50-50 partisan split that they could tip with tie-breaking votes from Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

“Anecdotally, I have not heard a single person say, ’I’m tapped out,’ ” Jenkins said. 

While the general public might be “weary of all the election results,” Georgia Gwinnett College’s Young says voters in the state are still “just as interested” in the runoffs. With the coronavirus pandemic shutting down productions and keeping many performers at home, Young said, “I don’t see where celebrities, who have even more time on their hands, are going to be any less enthused in participating.”

Rapper Offset, who performed at an Atlanta campaign rally for Biden in October, told Essence magazine earlier this month it was his first time casting a vote in a White House race. Days after the election, the Georgia-born music star tweeted a new political message to his more than 3 million followers: “We can’t sleep. We got more work to do.”

Tags 2020 2020 election 2020 Senate races David Perdue Donald Trump Georgia Georgia runoffs Georgia Senate races Georgia Senate runoffs Joe Biden Jon Ossoff Kelly Loeffler Kumail Nanjiani Mark Cuban Raphael Warnock sophia bush

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