Billy Ray, Gregg Hurwitz Discuss Messaging Advice They Offered Dozens of Democratic Candidates This Year

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In the 2018 midterm election, novelist Gregg Hurwitz and screenwriter Billy Ray (The Hunger GamesRichard Jewell), along with director Marshall Herskovitz, worked behind the scenes helping a slew of Democratic candidates in what would be a successful effort to retake the U.S. House of Representatives. Beyond fundraising, they advised candidates on speeches and overall messaging. In the end, 21 of the 30 candidates that the group supported in 2018 won their elections.  

Two years ago, the trio was back in action in the 2020 election. Together with Altered Carbon creator Laeta Kalogridis and S.W.A.T. executive producer Shawn Ryan, they created what amounted to a political content studio, making more than 150 commercials, such as a high-profile ad which featured clips from Ronald Reagan’s “Shining City on a Hill” speech. Run by the group Republican Voters Against Trump, it asked “Has Your Party Left You?” 

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Unpaid and flying largely under the radar, Hurwitz (the author of the Orphan X thriller series) and Ray (who is developing a limited series for Showtime about the Jan. 6 insurrection) have been back in action throughout this latest midterm cycle, working directly on political messaging with, they say, upwards of 140 Democratic candidates, including scores of incumbents. 

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Their overall advice: Don’t sound like institutional Democrats — find a way to speak that can engage a broad swath of voters including moderate Democrats, independents and persuadable Republicans. The two are focused on finding centrist common ground and posit themselves as bridge-builders who are willing to engage in dialogue with people on the right even when they do not agree on policy matters.

They are, to put it mildly, not enamored of the far left and their discussion of messaging tactics is likely to raise the ire of some progressives. Hurwitz for instance describes the leftist flank in America as having an “insanity” and a “sickness,” especially for what he describes as a “devouring, self-cannibalizing” tendency intent on “purity tests.” He is quick to note that “the sickness on the right is much more ascendant in [the Republican] party.”

Just before the midterm elections— which could see one or both houses of Congress flip to Republican control — The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Ray and Hurwitz about their work, their take on the state of the U.S. and the body politic, and why they think there’s a chance that Democrats won’t suffer a wipeout.

Billy Ray and Gregg Hurwitz

Billy Ray and Gregg Hurwitz

Kevin Winter/Getty Images; Gary Fleder

How many Democratic candidates have you advised this cycle? 

Ray: At this point there are about 75 sitting members of the House and Senate that I try to help with messaging and another 70 candidates that are running. That can mean fairly regular contact for some of them. It means that I’ll help write a speech for them or help them with debate prep or rapid response. Sometimes I’m speaking to larger groups [like] the state caucus of the Democratic Party in a given state. But it’s always the same idea. It’s always how to sound less like a Democrat so that you can make arguments that independent voters and conservatives can actually hear. 

How do you connect with these candidates and create a working relationship with them? 

Ray: The key is not doing it through the [Democratic] party. The election of Trump just totally devastated me. And I knew I just had to start doing more in the political realm. I had written enough checks that candidates would come looking for me when they were running in 2018. And my agreement with those candidates who were trying to flip the house in 2018 was, “Yeah, I’m happy to fundraise for you. I’m happy to write a check for you, but I need to talk to you about the way that you communicate. I need to talk to you about how, how we collectively as Democrats are communicating.”  

I think one of the reasons why candidates respond to Gregg and to me is because we’re not part of a consultant class and we’re not going through the national party. We find all that to be a total waste of time. Our motto is, “We don’t need money. We don’t want credit, and we don’t ask permission.” And that allows us to be extremely nimble in terms of the way we deal with individual candidates and individual races. 

Can you give me an example?  

Ray: A guy called me today: He’s running for state legislature in Virginia. And he said, “Can you give me some language on abortion?” So we spent five minutes on the phone and now he’s gonna go off and change his language on abortion because the language made sense to him. If I tried to do that through his staff or through political consultants that he pays, or through the state or national party, it would all get watered down. It would all take too long. Directness is the only way this thing works.  

How did you immerse yourself in politics and become adept at what you do? 

Ray: I put myself at the feet of people like Gregg who knew a lot about political messaging and learned and read and studied and looked at polling and got a deeper understanding of how, and more importantly why, Trump had won.

Hurwitz: For a long time now, we have been looking at what America actually thinks as best we can, because there’s no polling that is perfect. Rather than listening to the received wisdom through channels of communication, many of which are largely compromised at this point, every day I read The Drudge Report, I read Bari Weiss’ Common Sense, I read the AP, The Washington Post and selectively The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal to try and just get a scattershot of what’s happening. And then I do a lot of voyaging across the aisle. A lot of my efforts are across the aisle; they always have been. [Since] 2016, 2017, I was pulling in and trying to really rely on the wisdom of people like [conservative thinkers] David Frum and Bill Kristol and Sarah Longwell and Jordan Peterson and Rick Wilson [at the Lincoln Project]. Just a lot of listening. Last time I was in DC, I actually met with almost predominantly Republican leadership to ask questions, to see how they think about stuff. There are two quotes by Desmond Tutu that have very much governed my work. One of them is, “If you want peace, you don’t talk to your friends, you talk to your enemies.” And the other one is, “An enemy’s a friend waiting to be made.” My hard line in the sand is Trumpism and the Big Lie. Let’s call it Jan. 6. Until that has abated, that to me is the most clear threat. 

You two seem like you largely fly below the radar with the work you do. 

Hurwitz: Billy has said this before, our client is the United States of America. I don’t care if we get credit. Look, we both have the fortune to have some measure of success In our day jobs. That gives us a certain amount of independence to do this.

So what is some of the messaging that you have been putting out there to Democratic candidates this election cycle? 

Ray: One thing I would say is 58 percent of Americans believe that MAGA is a threat to democracy. And that includes 25 percent of Republicans. This the first time in American history [that] Americans now believe there are more extremists on the right than on the left. As recently as 2020, you could talk about the radical left and everyone thought you knew what you were talking about, but you can now make an argument that there is a radical right out there that is unlike anything we’ve ever seen in America before. So for me, what I talk to candidates about all the time is, “Don’t frame this as an argument, as an election between Democrats and Republicans.” Frame this as an election between Americans and extremists. Because if you frame it that way, everybody knows what bucket they want to be in. Seventy percent [of the country] loathes extremism and fears extremism. You know, we think of ourselves as such a divided country. But the fact is, if you take the Democratic position on abortion, minimum wage, healthcare, climate rescue, gerrymandering, election support versus election denial, 60 percent of the country comes with you. We’re actually not a divided country at all in that way. So to me, the framing for this election is: This is a choice between community and chaos. This is a choice between votes and violence, between laws and lies, between books and bans, between truth and tantrums. That’s basically what’s on the ballot here. When they put minimum wage on the ballot in Florida, it got 60 percent, in Arkansas it got 68 percent, and in Missouri it was 62 percent. These are states where Democrats routinely get their asses kicked. And yet the ideas of the Democratic Party are enormously successful. That means you’ve got a messaging problem.  

What’s one issue where that applies?

Ray: One of the things that we talk about [is] we tell our candidates to stop saying “universal background checks.” If you just start saying “violent history checks,” 95 percent of America comes with you including 73 percent of NRA members. People don’t like the term universal background checks. It sounds Big Brother-y.  

But how do you break through with any messaging? Isn’t the country too polarized?  

Hurwitz: What’s happening is we’re reacting and reacting and reacting and reacting. We have what is called the hate industrial complex in place. That’s a term I want to credit to my colleague Samar Ali who’s a professor at Vanderbilt. And this hate industrial complex, we all know what it is. Every time we open our phone, it’s like what’s the dumbest or most offensive thing somebody said somewhere? So we’re in a society — with our phones — where nothing can ever be forgotten. And we also refuse to forgive anything, right? There’s not a lot of forgiveness being modeled. And so we’re stuck in this sort of paralyzed loop of hatred. You see where [Florida governor Ron] DeSantis is and then you look where [California governor Gavin] Newsom is. What we have is two parties who are leaning — one off the left coast and one off the right coast — until they’re going to fucking snap apart. But DeSantis could make the argument, I want to turn Florida red, white and blue. Or Newsom could say the same. What if Newsom were to come out and say, “We have great strongholds of conservatives here. We have Orange County, which is a business powerhouse. We have San Diego that has an immense military community with great traditional values. We have some conservative leadership in Silicon Valley. Let’s make California a template for the rest of the country so they will join us.” How do we get our party to tilt in towards the center and the Republicans to do the same? Because there’s nothing I want more than a very strong party on both sides where we have basically beneficial adversaries. Because my belief is that liberals are sort of the gas and conservatives are the brake for how we navigate complex change and new ideas.

How else do you think Democrats could do better on messaging? 

Ray: If you poll Americans on what virtues and values mean the most to them, freedom is number one. And it’s not close. Freedom outpolls justice in America by 22 points. My point being that for a long time Americans believed — in big numbers — that Democrats were more likely to restrict your freedoms than Republicans were. And an example is the gun issue, which of course should have been a safety issue. But once it became a freedom issue, you could walk into Sandy Hook and shoot 20 kids and it didn’t really change the conversation. Because freedom matters to Americans more than anything. Knowing that, Democrats have to use a different kind of language. If you want to sell infrastructure, part of it is to say, “Hey, that rural broadband is going to free you to connect to the global economy.” And if we fix that bridge, it’s going to free you to get to your mom in the nursing home safely. It’s a different kind of language and it’s not something that Democrats use a lot and they need to use it a lot. And now, because of extremism from the GOP on guns, abortion, elections, climate denial, et cetera, because the GOP has gone so far to the extreme, Democrats for the first time ever can now position themselves as, “We’re the antidote of chaos.” Chaos is bringing AR-15s to a polling place. Chaos is Jan. 6. We actually represent competent, effective, robust government.  

Hurwitz: I want to make a couple points on that chaos frame. You know, a lot of Americans saw chaos in the riots that happened in Atlanta and Seattle and Portland. It’s part of why I was jumping up and down at the time and standing directly behind [former Atlanta mayor] Keisha Lance Bottoms. Her speech in Atlanta for me was a moment of thundering moral authority in real time. She figured out exactly what to say there with her city on fire. The Democrats had a really hard time distinguishing between peaceful protest, legitimate outrage and when it went too far into stuff that we don’t condone. It can’t be endorsed that we just have freedom zones of crime.  

Ray: Think of it this way. We’re talking about the pragmatics of politics. And by that I mean, we want to win. And if you want to win, the votes are in the big middle. The votes have always been in the big middle. The win is in the big middle. You have to tack there. So taking Seattle and Portland as an example, I just wrote a mini-series about Jan. 6 and I’ve spent a lot of time investigating and researching and talking to people who were there. When you talk to people on the right about Jan. 6 without fail, the first thing they say to you is, “What about Seattle? What about Portland?” It’s the first thing they say. Now they may have gotten that from Breitbart or they may have gotten that from Fox. It doesn’t matter. And it may be that they are comparing apples and chainsaws. That also doesn’t matter. What matters, and what Gregg is saying, is that you had $2 billion worth of [property] damage. And if no Democrats were saying, “That’s too far, that’s wrong” because they were so afraid of getting flamed by [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez]’s Twitter feed, that they were afraid to say anything about actual destruction of property, well then you surrender some moral high ground. Similarly, when the San Francisco Board of Education two years ago said, “We’re not going to name schools after Abraham Lincoln anymore, he wasn’t woke enough,” every Democrat in America should have been in front of a microphone that day saying, “That is fucking insane.” And that does not speak for me. Yes, the left is a part of my party, but the left is not the sum of my party. We’re a big tent. I’m glad they’re a part of us, but the left and the Democratic party are not the same thing. And we are going to call out the left when the left goes too far. If you do that, you might lose 10 votes. But you are going to gain a million independents who say, “Oh wow, they’re policing themselves. That’s a party I can trust.” For the same reason that they know they know they cannot trust the Republican party to police its fringe. And that’s a critical difference. 

Hurwitz: And that big personality trait — to stand up and take a position — is a key aspect of leadership — that’s FDR, that’s Winston Churchill, that’s Frederick Douglas. People who, when the push comes to shove, can draw a line and say something. I think, in fact, that our country is really deeply sick right now.  

You’ve talked about sickness. How do you feel America is sick? 

Hurwitz: I spent a lot of time last week in rural America. The more that I’ve been digging in and going across the aisle and going to different districts, the more I’m aware that there’s a sickness that is not going to be solved or determined by who’s going to check blue or check red in an election. Politics are our short-term necessity, but I do not think that they play into the middle- to long-term game strategy as much. We have to rebuild America from the community level up, and I think people are feeling it, understanding that our kids are not all right, our teenagers are not all right, our culture’s not all right. There’s some real work we have to do in terms of moral responsibility in communities, in business, in churches, in mosques, in temples, like across the board in education, in journalism. We need to have a rejuvenation, a revivification of moral leadership. And we can’t just rely on putting these billions and billions of dollars every year into midterms and into the presidential races and think that that’s going do the trick. 

So what do you propose instead?

Hurwitz: Billy has a phrase that I love that he’s been using, which is, “It’s time to get your neighbors back.” 

Ray: It always comes back to polling. And in poll after poll, what we’re finding is that Americans crave community. They want community. They want to get their neighbors back. They want to get back to a time where they were thinking about bake sales and Little League and looking after each other’s kids. They want to know that if they have a flat tire and they’re on the side of the road, that a neighbor’s going to pull over to help them without checking first to see if your bumper sticker matches theirs. But if you want to get your neighbors back, you’ve got to lower your guard a little bit, you’ve got to start listening again, you’ve got to start trusting again. For six years, you’ve been told that you have to hate people over political differences, and it’s exhausting and you’ve got to let that go. It’s the only way we’re going to trust; it’s the only way we’re going to heal this country. But I want to go off on one other direction because I think it’s so important. There were 6.2 million Americans who voted for Obama and then voted for Trump. 1.3 million of them were in just three states, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, which is why the blue wall crumbled. So somebody a lot smarter than I am did a deep dive study. Who are those 1.3 million Americans and what are their characteristics? Here’s what they found. Those 1.3 million Americans on average work two and a half jobs, they commute three hours per day and they think about politics four minutes per week. You’re not going to win that guy over with an argument about the filibuster. So you go up to that guy in Allentown, [Pennsylvania]; in Dearborn, [Michigan]; et cetera, and I guarantee you he’s taking his medication every other day to make 30 pills last 60 days. He’s got a kid with special needs and if he’s lucky, he’s got a mom in a nursing home. OK, you go up to that guy and say, “You’ve got white privilege and I don’t like your pronouns.” He’s going to tell you to go fuck yourself. And he should, because from his point of view, what’s that got to do with anything in terms of his daily life? The thing about Democrats, and this is the only way we can lose, in my personal opinion, we insist that people celebrate things that they have just learned how to tolerate. If you go up to that guy as embattled as he is and say gay rights, he’d say, “Yeah, okay, gay rights, I don’t care. Whatever, who cares? Let them have their rights. I don’t care. Just don’t tell me that if I don’t march in a parade that I’m a homophobe.” And if you say to them, “Okay, rights for African Americans.” [He’d] say, “Yeah, great, sure, fine, but don’t tell me that if I don’t like critical race theory that I’m a fucking racist, get off my back.” That’s something the Democrats don’t understand. If people don’t come all the way with us, we cancel them and that’s how we lose them. And that’s not the big middle. The big middle has to make room for people who don’t celebrate everything that the left celebrates. As long as they’re tolerating it, that should be enough for us, because we’re pulling the same side of the rope. 

Hurwitz: We know the ways that the left and the right get off course. The left turns into a like a swarm of self-devouring, cannibalizing mosquitoes and it’s death by a thousand paper cuts. This cannibalization through purity tests is very different than going further and further towards a giant fascistic overuse of force. They’re different tendencies and we need to try to reverse them on both sides.  

Ray: Then you see on Twitter, somebody’s outraged because a politician used the term pregnant women instead of pregnant persons. Why the hell is anybody arguing about using the term pregnant women? That makes Democrats sound insane. And that is not where America needs this party to be at this moment. I wanna state, for the record, if you are a trans person and you become pregnant and you want to call yourself a pregnant person instead of a pregnant woman, go right ahead. God bless you. But as a party, we don’t want to be saying you’re not allowed to say pregnant women anymore, because then it sounds like we’re on Mars and how’s the rest of the country ever going to trust us? And that sounds just as insane as denying an election. If you’re talking about the [rural] community I was just in, or an urban community that is falling behind in fighting for their life every minute and the safety of their kids every minute of every day, that sounds just as insane as the Big Lie. 

What is your feeling about how the midterms will go and who will control the House and Senate? 

Ray: I believe we’re going to expand our leads in both. I believe that if 58 percent of Americans believe that MAGA is a threat to democracy, including 25 percent of Republicans, since Americans are literally freaking out about the abolition of Roe v. Wade, where we have collectively decided to replace religious liberty with governmental control, yes I think we’re going to win in the House and the Senate. Women now have less rights at a federal level than in Russia, China or under Sharia law. 

Hurwitz: I’m not as bullish as Billy is, though I have more optimism than the Democrats in general. I think that we’re going to keep control of the Senate. I think the House is trickier.

Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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