The political risks, and potential rewards, of corporate PACs aren’t going away this year.
After the violent attack on the Capitol one year ago, dozens of company PACs made the unusual move of turning off their political donations. Most resumed their giving within months. But a few plan to continue to withhold donations to the 147 Republican members of Congress who voted against certifying Joe Biden’s victory in the Electoral College — at least through the 2022 midterm election cycle.
Dow Chemical, Lyft, BNSF, Microsoft and Airbnb are among the companies whose political action committees will remain closed to those 147, at least for now, according to spokespeople. Lobbyists and other corporate representatives say such a move may not be sustainable in the long term, especially if Republicans win back the House majority in November.
“For better or for worse, and whether I agree with it or not, Americans have short memories,” Democratic lobbyist Cristina Antelo, who runs the bipartisan firm Ferox Strategies, said during a recent webinar put on by CQ Roll Call parent company FiscalNote.
Antelo said she’s telling her clients to build relationships with Republicans, who may be in line for leadership positions or committee chairmanships.
“You should start that here in January, you should start that now in advance, you should start those conversations and get to know them and have them get to know you,” she added.
Some companies said they are still evaluating what to do next.
“The pause we put in place in January 2021 is still in effect. We are continuing to evaluate the policy,” Melissa Froehlich Flood, who handles corporate communications and public policy for Marriott, said in an email.
Alternate routes of influence
Unlike defense contractors or trade associations, business PACs that have decided not to give to the 147 Republican lawmakers are overwhelmingly involved in direct marketing to the public and could be trying to avoid a consumer backlash. Still, they may be relying on other avenues of political influence, such as outside lobbyists to build connections with those members and their aides.
Company executives, too, may give their own personal money as campaign donations. The company PAC of the brokerage Charles Schwab Corp. was terminated last year, but Charles Schwab himself is a leading donor to the House and Senate GOP campaign arms and committees run by Republican leaders, according to federal election disclosures.
Kristin Brackemyre, director of PAC and government relations for the Public Affairs Council, said the companies that plan to continue to withhold donations to election objectors “have made peace that supporting their campaigns is not going to be an avenue that they have to influence or build relationships with those members.”
“If the makeup of Congress changes, that’ll probably factor into their conversations about what to do moving forward,” she said. Republicans need to win a net of five seats to retake the House and just one seat to win back the Senate.
The Public Affairs Council, a trade group for public affairs executives, has kept tabs on its members over the past year, regularly surveying them about their political giving decisions. In its latest survey this fall, the council found that slightly more than 60 percent of PACs had either resumed giving to the 147 lawmakers or had never formally stopped.
The council, in its 2021 corporate PAC benchmarking report, found that company PACs were heavily affected by both the aftermath of Jan. 6 and from the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down in-person fundraising events. About 81 percent of PACs told the council they had paused donations after Jan. 6, and about 69 percent of PACs said they had paused solicitations of contributions from employees because of COVID-19, according to the report.
Micaela Isler, executive director of the National Association of Business Political Action Committees, said that 2021 forced business and association PACs to reevaluate their giving.
She said they also worked closely “with eligible employees and other stakeholders to ensure their PAC missions were aligned with their contributors’ goals.”
A spokesperson for the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association said in an email that the group had not yet “resumed giving to any of the 147 at this point but have donated to campaign committees on both sides of the aisle.”
“Moving forward in 2022, with new criteria and new PAC governance in place, we will evaluate, donate to and engage with members of both parties who will work with us to build a more affordable, accessible and equitable health care system in 2022 and beyond,” the spokesperson said.
PACs in decline?
The full scope of PAC giving in 2021 will not be finalized and filed to the Federal Election Commission until later this month, but according to data so far on file, PACs donated about 28 percent less to House members last year than they did in 2019, a comparable nonelection year.
Contributions to House Republicans who voted against certifying the 2020 electoral votes of Arizona or Pennsylvania or both were about 55 percent lower last year than in 2019, the preliminary data shows. But Republicans who voted to certify electors saw their contributions drop by only 3 percent, a possible reflection of the bipartisan bent to most corporate PAC giving strategies.
Stewart Verdery, who runs the firm Monument Advocacy and is a former senior Senate GOP aide, said his clients are putting a lot more thought into their PAC strategies.
But, he added during the CQ Roll Call webinar, “It’s just not really a sustainable position to say you won’t give to two-thirds of the Republican House caucus, including the leadership and the likely next speaker.”