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Corporate PAC donations to parties and candidates plummet after Capitol riot

Companies weigh options knowing ‘scrutiny is not going to go away’

Donations from Comcast’s corporate PAC, one of the most active in the 2020 cycle, dried up in January as the company and many others examine donation policies in the wake of the Capitol riot.
Donations from Comcast’s corporate PAC, one of the most active in the 2020 cycle, dried up in January as the company and many others examine donation policies in the wake of the Capitol riot. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

AT&T’s political action committee shelled out more than $322,000 to members of Congress and party committees in January 2019. Two years later, the same corporate PAC disclosed no donations at all. Ditto for Comcast’s PAC, which dished out $231,000 in January 2019 and nothing to federal coffers in the first, tumultuous month of this year.

The unusual inaction of the two PACs, among the biggest of their kind, is emblematic of a dramatic plunge in contributions by all corporate PACs following the deadly Jan. 6 riots on Capitol Hill.

Early campaign finance data show that companies and organizations largely stuck to their public pledges to pause at least some of their political donations after a pro-Trump mob attacked the Capitol and after 147 Republicans in the House and Senate voted to reject the electoral votes from certain states President Joe Biden won. The companies took such moves after coming under public pressure for their previous contributions to the 147.

Donations to candidates and party committees from the PACs that vowed to suspend some or all donations — more than 100 connected to companies and trade associations, as compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics — totaled just $50,150 in January, compared with more than $2.7 million in January 2019, at the same point in the election cycle, a CQ Roll Call analysis of disclosures with the Federal Election Commission found.

That’s a drop of more than 98 percent.

The coronavirus pandemic also put a big dent in giving during the earliest weeks of this year. But PACs would normally use checks in January after an election year to introduce themselves to new office holders, help candidates build up war chests to scare away potential challengers or to retire old campaign debt, and assist party committees gearing up for another campaign cycle. Disclosures from 2021 show this did not happen.

“We’re coming off a global pandemic that certainly impacted PACs throughout 2020, and their fundraising efforts may have been, probably, different than in the past given the circumstances,” said Micaela Isler, executive director of the National Association of Business Political Action Committees. “Then on top of that, you had the unfortunate and horrific attacks at the Capitol where many companies did make public statements that they were pausing to review their policies and procedures.”

Isler said many company and association PACs are “still in the throes” of examining their political-money policies but are, by and large, eager to return to the fundraising scene.

“Generally speaking, yes, most of our members want to move forward,” Isler said. “It’s obviously going to be a decision that’s left up to those PAC boards.”

To that point, a Comcast spokesperson noted that after an atypical January, fundraising events began to pick up starting in February. The company’s PAC had given $112,500 to candidates and committees as of March 10, the spokesperson added. Comcast has said it will pause donations to the 147 Republicans but hasn’t indicated for how long.

Sitting on their war chests

All PAC contributions — not just from those that announced a pause — dropped off the table in January for the four committees that power congressional campaigns: the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Compared to the same point in 2019, the NRSC’s receipts from all corporate PACs fell 91 percent in January, from $889,000 to $80,000, according to data on Political MoneyLine. And that was the smallest percentage drop of the big four, with the DCCC going down by 93 percent, and the DSCC and NRCC each dropping by 97 percent.

In all, just seven of the PACs that announced they were reviewing donations made any contributions at all in January: General Electric gave $15,000, including $5,000 to Illinois’ Adam Kinzinger, who was one of 10 House Republicans to vote to impeach Donald Trump after the riots and quickly got a primary challenge.

American Express gave $5,000 each to South Dakota GOP Sen. John Thune, who opposed colleagues’ attempt to overturn electoral votes, and to the leadership PAC of Utah Republican Mitt Romney, who went further and voted Feb. 13 to convict Trump after the Senate impeachment trial. Others making contributions were Ford, $9,000; Google, $8,000; the National Automobile Dealers Association, $2,500; and the National Beer Wholesalers Association, $1,000.

NRCC spokesman Michael McAdams pointed to recent comments from committee Chairman Tom Emmer of Minnesota, who told Reuters that GOP members “don’t answer to PACs. We answer to voters.” McAdams also noted that the NRCC outraised the DCCC in general during the month of January.

The NRCC did raise $7.4 million to the DCCC’s $7 million in January, but that edge was almost entirely because of House members themselves, not outside contributors. GOP members gave the NRCC nearly $1.4 million, whereas Democratic members gave the DCCC less than $250,000 according to FEC disclosures.

The NRSC, whose chairman, Florida’s Rick Scott, is among those 147 Republicans, has downplayed any concerns about corporate PAC donations.

Big business, big money

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the big-business lobby and political donor, said after Jan. 6 it would carefully consider how to donate moving forward. But the chamber’s senior political strategist, Ashlee Rich Stephenson, said in a March 5 memo that it would not penalize lawmakers who voted against the election.

“We do not believe it is appropriate to judge members of Congress solely based on their votes on the electoral certification,” she wrote, adding that “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.”

Kristin Brackemyre, director of PAC and government relations for the Public Affairs Council, said her organization recently surveyed 100 of its members and found that two-thirds of them have changed the way they are giving. The poll found that 44 percent still had a temporary suspension on all giving by their federal PACs, while 23 percent had a temporary suspension on giving to the 147 GOP lawmakers who voted against certifying electoral votes.

About 16 percent had not adopted a formal position but still were reviewing their policies, Brackemyre said.

Risk vs. reward

Most PACs are committed to staying in politics long-term, Brackemyre said, but are working to come to grips with what changes to impose — and are aware of the risks campaign contributions may bring to their brands.

“They understand we’ve never seen anything like what happened on Jan. 6,” she said. “So I think right now, everyone’s studying, ‘What does that mean for my individual company?’ … There’s an understanding in the [PAC] community too that the scrutiny is not going away.”

The pandemic has also led to companies curbing their PAC investments, Brackemyre said.

“COVID is a big factor,” she said. “I definitely think with the pandemic, a lot of people are reevaluating, and asking, ‘If we’re not able to do events in person or do trips, is there a benefit to giving?’ Many people are just not in a hurry to make contributions.”

Democratic fundraiser Mike Fraioli noted that even more company PACs had decided to sit out the early months of this cycle, though he noted that some just didn’t say so publicly. But, he added, other factors, especially COVID-19, may also be involved in the January decrease.

Some corporate donors, he said, may be holding out for a widespread return to in-person events.

Still, Fraioli noted, corporate PACs are an increasingly smaller slice of fundraising dollars. They’re not indexed for inflation, like individual donations are, and remain capped at $5,000 per election.

“PACs are still important, but they’re not what they used to be,” Fraioli said. “We still want and we raise PAC money, but the percentage of the total take is lower, although it’s still significant.”

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