Mitch McConnell Tries to Have it Both Ways on Corporate Cash

6 minute read

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I thought Twitter had to have it wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time the partisan corners of social media had taken something out of context or intentionally left out part of the statement. There was absolutely no way Senate Republicans’ chief Mitch McConnell had told corporations to stay out of politics — but that they should please keep sending checks to political organs, thank you very much.

But, no. Twitter had it about right. McConnell, a steadfast critic of limits on campaign finance systems and one of the biggest boosters of corporate money in politics, told reporters yesterday that corporations should stay out of political fights if they don’t want to incur the wrath of consumers. The comments came after Major League Baseball announced it is pulling its All-Star Game out of Atlanta in response to Georgia officials’ decision to make it harder to vote in the state, especially for voters of color. Georgia-based companies Delta and Coca-Cola have joined MLB lodging protests, as have national leaders, including the President and several Black execs.

“My warning, if you will, to corporate America is to stay out of politics,” McConnell said. “It’s not what you’re designed for. And don’t be intimidated by the Left into taking up causes that put you right in the middle of America’s greatest political debates.” He added, “You know, Republicans drink Coca-Cola, too. And we fly. And we like baseball.”

McConnell first hinted at this sentiment on Monday. Pressed by reporters a day later in his home state of Kentucky, McConnell subsequently clarified that edict excluded donations. “I’m not talking about political contributions,” McConnell said.

Predictably, liberals and good-government groups screamed hypocrisy, and not without cause. McConnell’s message was basically that corporations should continue to cut checks but keep their mouths shut when it comes to tough policy questions.

McConnell may be simply drawing on tactics from decades past. In 1990, Michael Jordan famously said “Republicans buy sneakers, too” when pressed by civil-rights groups to take sides in North Carolina’s Senate race featuring conservative Jesse Helms. But we’ve come a long way in the last 30 years. Today, LeBron James uses his considerable brand to help register voters.

Recent years have seen more and more activism in corporate boardrooms and brand-centered enterprises. Indiana’s so-called religious freedom law went down in large part because Angie’s List threatened to cancel its expansion there. More than 200 businesses signed a friend-of-the-court brief — written by GOP mega-lawyer Ted Olsen — opposing North Carolina’s anti-transgender bathroom law. The NCAA boycotted the state until the law fell. After George Floyd’s death plunged the country into a fresh reckoning on race last year, corporations like Disney, Nike and Netflix all pledged millions to promote racial justice.

(The movement hasn’t been exclusively liberal. The most notable example of a conservative win via corporate activism is a case involving craft store chain Hobby Lobby, whose conservative Christian owners sued the Obama Administration to seek an out from paying for contraception for their employees, and won. Still, it’s rare.)

Such corporate activism can be good for business. A 2018 study from Edelman, the world’s largest P.R. company by revenue, found two-thirds of consumers vote with their dollars: if your brand supports consumers’ civic or political priorities, the consumer will go there over a neutral rival. But it can also draw unwanted attention. Earlier this week, former President Donald Trump called on his supporters to “boycott all of the woke companies,” seeking to punish Major League Baseball and other Georgia companies that have spoken out. McConnell and other Republicans have now made an All-Star Game into a battlefield in the culture wars.

But for Republicans trying to regain control of Congress, corporate cash also can’t be ignored.

To be clear, both Democratic and Republican political committees take corporate money. Many prominent Democrats have sworn off corporate money, but not all. It’s not uncommon to see some corporations give equally to both parties so their lobbyists get invited to the next reception. Outside groups spent a combined $2 billion in the 2020 elections, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. The McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund spent almost $294 million that year. The Democrats’ Senate Majority PAC, affiliated with Sen. Chuck Schumer, wasn’t far behind, with $234 million. It was the first election cycle to see a single outside group topped $200 million in spending.

Corporate spending in politics across the board fell dramatically after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol. The dramatic day gave corporate PACs permission to hit pause on their whole posture with Washington. Corporate America had put Republicans on notice that cash may dry-up if they lined up behind the effort to deny Joe Biden the certification of his win. After 147 Republicans in Congress voted against certifying Biden’s win, companies like American Express said those naysayers shouldn’t expect any more AmEx PAC money. Others like Comcast and Marriott also decided to hit pause on their giving while they assess if funding the rancor in Washington is good for their brand.

With the House and Senate both within striking distance, McConnell and his House counterpart Kevin McCarthy cannot afford to have corporate money stay on the sidelines ahead of the midterms next year. They need the money if they’re going to win.

Hence, McConnell’s conundrum, which manifested in this week’s brazen and inelegant shut-up-but-give stance. Not only will Republicans need money for the midterms, they’ll need money to fight the bad publicity as iconic brands like Coca-Cola, MLB and Delta actively work against Republican efforts. A lot of rank-and-file voters will take notice when big brands speak out against measures that impinge on Americans’ right to vote. So McConnell is left to lambast those companies—and ask for their dollars. No one ever said politics was rational.

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