How and why Hollywood is helping Wisconsin Democrats raise millions for Biden over Zoom

It's more than childhood friends pulling favors or stars from the state.

September 17, 2020, 11:45 PM

The chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin says "all roads to the White House go through Wisconsin," but the party is also hoping that adding the fictional cities of Pawnee and Florin to the itinerary will help former Vice President Joe Biden's chances in November.

Wisconsin Democrats raised $4.25 million in a star-studded virtual event featuring the cast of "The Princess Bride" performing a live-streamed reading of the beloved 1987 movie script on Sunday. It was the largest-ever grassroots fundraiser for the state party, which held another celebrity reunion fundraiser Thursday featuring the cast of the hit sitcom "Parks and Recreation." Thursday's event had raised more than $430,000 as it wrapped up, according to Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chair Ben Wikler.

"There are tens of thousands of people who've been watching tonight," Wikler said during the livestream, "instead of watching Donald Trump give a speech in Wisconsin today … which I think speaks volumes about differences in approach in a pandemic," he added, taking a dig at the president's in-person rally Thursday in Mosinee, Wisconsin.

Thursday night's event featured Amy Poehler, Aubrey Plaza, Retta, Adam Scott, Nick Offerman, Jim O'Heir, Ben Schwartz, and show creator Michael Schur.

The Democratic Party of Wisconsin said all proceeds are going towards the push to help Biden defeat President Donald Trump in the state -- a development that surely would have pleased Poehler's "Parks and Rec" character of Leslie Knope, whose ideal man, according to Schur, had "the mind of George Clooney and the body of Joe Biden."

"I have really fond memories, and we all do, of getting to work with so many on both sides of the aisle," Poehler said of one episode in which Biden and other political figures guest starred. "And Vice President Biden was certainly one of them."

PHOTO: Democratic U.S. presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden takes part in an outdoor town hall meeting in Scranton, Pennsylvania, U.S. September 17, 2020.
Democratic U.S. presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden takes part in an outdoor town hall meeting in Scranton, Pennsylvania, U.S. September 17, 2020.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Scott and Plaza anchored the fundraiser, starting with a Q&A session on how to apply for and mail-in absentee ballots in Wisconsin.

Wikler attributed the haul for Sunday's fundraiser -- which included Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin, Wallace Shawn, and Rob Reiner, among other celebs -- not only to the star power involved, but also the unique circumstances of the current election season.

"It's a new model for or a kind of grassroots engagement and fundraising and volunteer mobilization that really is the product of an election that matters so, so intensely for everyone," Wikler told ABC News ahead of Thursday's fundraiser, "and a pandemic that puts people in front of Zoom screens across the country on a regular basis."

Wikler also said that the state party's connection to Hollywood was forged in part by "The West Wing" actor Bradley Whitford, who grew up in Madison.

"Brad has a long history of coming back to his home state to help Democrats with campaigns," said Wikler, "and after the coronavirus hit, the usual in-person events stopped making sense."

That prompted Whitford and the party to host a podcast fundraiser reuniting several other "West Wing" cast members ahead of the Democratic National Convention in mid-August.

"And that was so successful that we just started brainstorming, 'who else might be up for doing something like this?'" said Wikler. From there, a member of the state's Democratic Party was able to get in touch with Elwes, who was eager to set up a Princess Bride reunion.

The event drew more than 110,000 viewers on Sunday night. Supporters only had to donate $1 to register, but the average donation was about $30, according to a Democratic Party of Wisconsin staffer. One hundred thirty thousand people ended up donating in total.

Since then, other states have shown interest in a similar event to bring the characters of Westley, Princess Buttercup, and Inigo Montoya back to life to help benefit Democrats.

"We've been approached by some other battleground states," Elwes told MSNBC Thursday morning about helping Democratic Party efforts outside of Wisconsin, "and so we're looking at doing some other table reads, yeah."

Separately, the Biden and Trump campaigns reported August fundraising figures of $364.5 million and $210 million respectively, with Biden reportedly outspending Trump in television ads across battleground states, including Wisconsin.

"President Trump's campaign has invested heavily in a muscular field operation and ground game that will turn out our voters, while the Biden campaign is waging almost exclusively an air war," wrote 2020 Trump Campaign Manager Bill Stepien in a statement earlier this month, adding, "We like our strategy better."

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