ANALYSIS — Amid all the political fighting and division, bashing corporations is becoming a bipartisan affair.
For the last two cycles, Democrats gained significant mileage in attacking corporations by refusing to accept their PAC contributions. Now Republicans are getting in on the anti-corporate act in their own way, as they react to corporate reactions to their own actions and try to cultivate a new populist party.
In 2018, nearly 200 Democratic candidates took the “no corporate PAC money” pledge started by End Citizens United and subsequently raked in tens of millions of dollars. Democratic donors were more energized by the imminent threat of President Donald Trump in the White House, but the pledge was a key plank in the party platform.
Because of Democrats’ success that year, including winning back the House, the pledge continued to be popular among candidates. And even though House Democrats underperformed in 2020, losing a dozen seats and nearly their majority, the “no corporate PAC money” pledge did not receive much, if any, blame. That means the pledge will likely continue to be popular among Democratic candidates on the campaign trail through at least 2022.
While Republicans have traditionally been known as the party of business interests, recent election results and news events have many of them thinking otherwise.
“President Trump gave the Republican party a political gift: we are now the party supported by most working-class voters. The question is whether Republicans reject that gift or unwrap it and permanently become the Party of the Working Class,” Indiana Rep. Jim Banks wrote in a recent memo to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
As head of the Republican Study Committee, Banks is not a random member from northeast Indiana. He leads this conservative group, with roots that go back nearly 50 years and that was once led by Mike Pence and now includes three-quarters of the House GOP Conference.
“Republicans are pro-business and pro-worker, not pro-corporation,” Banks said in the memo’s “Main Street vs. Wall Street” agenda item, mentioning government restrictions during the pandemic that disproportionately hurt small businesses while larger competitors profited.
The most provocative item from Banks’ memo was calling on his fellow Republicans to embrace their votes against ratifying the Electoral College results.
“When Eli Lilly and several other corporate PACS blacklisted me for objecting to the unconstitutional election rule changes in 2020, I reached to individual donors, explained the situation, and asked for their support,” Banks wrote. “Once my supporters learned that liberal corporations blacklisted me because I refused to cave to their demands on January 6th, they were happy to make up the difference.”
Banks certainly isn’t alone in jumping on the anti-corporate bandwagon.
“Boycott Major League Baseball, Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, JP Morgan Chase, ViacomCBS, Citigroup, Cisco, UPS, and Merck. Don’t go back to their products until they relent,” Trump said in an April 3 press release that veered from responding to “woke cancel culture” to false claims that he won the 2020 election by a landslide.
Talking to reporters Tuesday after touring a hospital in Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell accused corporations such as Coca-Cola and Delta of siding with the left when they criticized a new voting law enacted in Georgia.
“My warning, if you will, to corporate America is to stay out of politics. It’s not what you’re designed for, and don't be intimidated by the left,” McConnell said. “Republicans buy stock and fly on planes and drink Coca-Cola too. So what I’m saying here is, I think this is quite stupid to jump in the middle of a highly controversial issue, particularly when they got their facts wrong.”
The Kentucky Republican specified he was not talking about campaign contributions.
“Most of them contribute to both sides, they have political action committees, that’s fine, it’s legal, it’s appropriate, I support that,” he said. “I’m talking about taking a position on a highly incendiary issue … and punishing a community or a state because you don’t like a particular law that passed. I just think it’s stupid.”
The road ahead
Ever since the 2020 election, Republicans have been coveting the coalition Trump assembled. It apparently doesn’t matter that the coalition was not enough to win the White House, hold the Senate or take the House — Republicans believe the former president built a successful populist movement. And we know that what happens in elections matters less than what politicians think happened in an election because the latter drives future behavior.
Right now, Republicans are feeling emboldened by their various responses to corporations trying to align broader corporate values with their political activity.
Banks recommended specific language to donors. “[Our] digital fundraising efforts should be paired with an explicit message: ‘I’m asking for a small donation, so I can continue to represent your values, not the values of liberal multinational corporations who are determined to replace conservatives like me.’”
“Every Republican Member in a competitive district should know exactly how much corporate cash their opponent received in 2020, and they should relay those numbers to their constituents,” Banks added. “The NRCC should arm Members with that information and commission advertisements that contrast Republican challengers with corporate-backed Democrat incumbents.”
That contrast will be difficult if, or as, most Democrats continue their no-corporate-PAC-money pledge. It’s also unclear how far Republicans are willing to go beyond the rhetoric and public boycotts to punish corporations. Republicans on Capitol Hill, for example, voted to lower the corporate tax rate under Trump and have been critical of President Joe Biden’s proposal to raise taxes on corporations to pay for infrastructure projects.
It’s also possible that Republicans find ways to work around a newfound anti-corporate stance. Some Democrats reject donations from corporate PACs but solicit corporate executives for contributions or are assisted by campaign committees and leadership PACs that receive corporate PAC donations.
The future will be interesting to see both how corporations react to the criticism and how the parties act when they realize they are sharing a similar message.
Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.