The empire strikes back
Following the riot at the Capitol on January 6, dozens of major companies — including Amazon, AT&T, Disney, Microsoft, and Walmart — announced they were suspending PAC contributions to the 147 Republican members of Congress who voted to overturn the results of the presidential election. Could this usher in a new era of responsibility in corporate political giving? Not if the United States Chamber of Commerce (the Chamber) has its way.
The Chamber is ostensibly a non-partisan organization that represents most large corporations in the United States. But, in practice, the Chamber almost exclusively supports Republican politicians and policies. In the 2020 election cycle, the Chamber endorsed 24 Republican candidates for the Senate and no Democrats. In House races, the Chamber endorsed 232 Republicans and 32 Democrats.
The decision by many of the Chamber's most prominent members companies to cut off funding to 147 Republican members of Congress poses a fundamental threat to the Chamber's activities. That group includes two-thirds of the Republicans in the House, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), and the leader of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), the committee responsible for electing Senate Republicans, Senator Rick Scott (R-FL).
The Chamber supported "all eight of the senators who voted against certifying President Biden's Electoral College win — including Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas — through either endorsements or contributions from its political action committee."
On Friday evening, the Chamber quietly sent a memo to its members saying that the Chamber does "not believe it is appropriate" to stop funding these Republicans just because they attempted to throw out millions of votes and install Trump for a second term.
Going forward, the Chamber will evaluate our support for candidates – Republicans and Democrats – based on their position on issues important to the Chamber, as well as their demonstrated commitment to governing and rebuilding our democratic institutions.
We do not believe it is appropriate to judge members of Congress solely based on their votes on the electoral certification. There is a meaningful difference between a member of Congress who voted no on the question of certifying the votes of certain states and those who engaged and continue to engage in repeated actions that undermine the legitimacy of our elections and institutions. For example, casting a vote is different than organizing the rally of January 6th or continuing to push debunked conspiracy theories. We will take into consideration actions such as these and future conduct that erodes our democratic institutions.
The memo attempts to recast votes to validate Trump's lies about voter fraud as reasonable and respectable. It describes an effort to throw out millions of votes in Pennsylvania and Arizona as voting "no on the question of certifying the votes of certain states." These votes, somehow, are qualitatively different than "repeated actions that undermine the legitimacy of our elections and institutions." The memo does not explain why it is inappropriate to hold members accountable for their votes. It simply asserts it as fact.
The purpose of the memo is not to make a detailed argument but to provide political cover to major corporations that wish to resume donating to the group of 147 Republicans that objected to the electoral college vote. Only a handful of companies have committed to stop contributing to this group permanently (American Express, Lyft, State Street) or for the next two years (Microsoft, Google, GE). Most corporate PACs have suspended contributions to Republican objectors (or all members of Congress) indefinitely, opening the door for them to resume at any time.
The Chamber asserts that its memo was the result of consultations with "over 100 Chamber members." As a result, corporations who resume donating to these Republicans may attempt to deflect criticism by asserting that their actions reflect the consensus of the business community.
The Chamber's evolving position on undermining democracy
The Chamber's March 5 memo contrasts sharply with its statements before and after the January 6 riot.
"Efforts by some members of Congress to disregard certified election results in an effort to change the election outcome… undermines our democracy and the rule of law and will only result in further division across our nation," the Chamber said in a January 4 statement. The Chamber clearly defined the anticipated votes to object to the Electoral College as undermining "democracy and the rule of law." But now, in the March 5 memo, the Chamber says there is a "meaningful difference" between those votes and "actions that undermine the legitimacy of our elections."
On January 12, Chamber Executive Vice President Neil Bradley praised companies suspending donations to members of Congress who objected to the Electoral College. Bradley said that companies were "tailoring the right response based on how they operate their political giving programs and their PAC programs." Bradley described the moves as businesses "stepping up and saying we have a role to play… restoring democratic norms, and we want to play that role." Now, the Chamber calls these same decisions "not appropriate."
Bradley also promised that the Chamber would "have a lot more to say about the members whose actions last week — and the actions over the next eight days and beyond — will have cost them the chamber’s support." Nearly two months later, the Chamber has not identified a single member of Congress who has lost its support.
The Chamber will reportedly "begin to make donations from its PAC in coordination with its updated policy" at the end of the first quarter.
Memo author is a Republican operative who used to work for Rudy Giuliani
The Chamber's memo was authored by Ashlee Rich Stephenson, the organization's Senior Political Strategist. In that role, Stephenson guides the Chamber's "endorsement process" and guides "the Chamber’s independent expenditure effort."
Stephenson gained her expertise in political strategy as a longtime Republican operative. She previously worked for the Republican National Committee and was the polling director for Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign in 2008. After November's election, Giuliani aggressively promoted Trump's baseless claims of voter fraud and encouraged members of Congress to object to the electoral college.
Stephenson directed millions in independent expenditures on behalf of the Chamber to support former Senators David Perdue (R-GA) and Kelly Loeffler (R-GA). It was a last-ditch effort to keep Republicans in control of the Senate.
The black box
Will corporations follow the Chamber's recommendations and resume their contributions to members of Congress that objected to certifying the electoral college? We won't know for a while.
In 2021, people running for House and Senate only have to report campaign receipts quarterly. So their first filings are not due until April 15. PACs can elect to file biannually, which means their first report will not be filed until July 31. (Some PACs elect to report monthly.)
The national party committees report every month. Last month, Popular Information reported that Experian, a major credit bureau, donated $15,000 to the NRSC in January.
Bloomberg reported that Popular Information's work is creating a "political reckoning" in corporate America.
We have a plan to comprehensively monitor corporate PAC activity in the months and years ahead. But Popular Information is a two-person newsletter, and this is a massive undertaking. It will involve tens of thousands of campaign finance records from dozens of federal and state databases.
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