ATLANTA — Corporate political donors nationwide have halted campaign giving in a stand against the violent fallout following the presidential election, but the pull-back may not make a noticeable dent in cash flowing into American politics.
A flurry of high-profile companies made headlines following the Jan. 6 insurrection attempt at the U.S. Capitol by swearing off campaign donations, but campaign finance experts say the halt isn’t likely to have much of an impact.
Business giants like JP Morgan Chase, AT&T, Marriott, The Coca-Cola Company, Blue Cross Blue Shield and Facebook are among those that have put a freeze on political donations.
The result is a patchwork of policies — some companies have stopped donating specifically to the 147 lawmakers who objected to the Electoral College certification, while many others have ceased donations altogether.
But campaign finance watchers suspect cash won’t stop flowing through back door channels in upcoming elections, despite overtures that signal potential fundraising problems from some GOP lawmakers.
Brendan Quinn, outreach coordinator for the Center for Responsive Politics — a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that tracks federal campaign spending — told CNHI there are "a lot of nuances" within corporate America's pledges to pull back on contributions.
Many companies that have sworn-off candidate donations also contribute “dark money” to super PACS or engage in intense lobbying efforts, he said. Money companies spend through those indirect channels isn't subjected to the same disclosure requirements under campaign finance reporting rules.
Those varying commitments may end up being a "hollow gesture,” Quinn said.
Some money leaves politics
In their effort to take a moral stand, several companies have paused donations to Republicans and Democrats alike. But GOP members who attempted to overturn the election have become the primary target of the corporate fallout.
All five of Oklahoma’s U.S. House delegates voted to reject electoral votes from Arizona and Pennsylvania.
Since then, about half of the nearly three dozen largest business donors to those members have announced probes or donation suspensions — some aimed at lawmakers who voted to overturn the election.
The nonprofit Oklahoma Watch found those members took at least $568,000 during the 2020 election cycle from PACS that have suspended donations.
In Pennsylvania, Comcast is the most prominent corporation to declare plans to withhold donations to candidates who contested the election results. Prior to the Jan. 6 attack, the company’s PAC gave $87,500 to the eight Pennsylvania Republicans who objected to the election results.
“The peaceful transition of power is a foundation of America’s democracy,” the company said in a statement, and with that announced it’s halt on donations to lawmakers “who voted against certification of the electoral college votes.”
Six Georgia House members voted to toss out the electoral college count — including controversial QAnon supporter Marjorie Taylor Greene and Trump-loyalist Jody Hice.
Hice has taken thousands from companies like Home Depot, AT&T, UPS and Delta — all among the big businesses that have paused donations. Greene, however, relies heavily on local business donors and far-right celebrities, like Trump attorney L. Lin Wood, who support her fringe assertions.
Three Michigan Republican representatives faced public criticism for their opposition to certifying the Electoral College results, but it's unlikely any of the trio will feel much financial pinch from corporate donor secession.
Fundraising records show U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Michigan, could see support drop from a few top-20 donors that have pledged to pause contributions, but those account for less than $50,000 of the more than $1.8 million Bergman raised during the latest election cycle.
Some small companies, too, have decided to call it quits on donations. After being criticized for contributing to pro-Trump New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, Stewart's Shops, a convenience store chain with 337 outlets in upstate New York and Vermont, announced it was suspending its support for all candidates.
Still, the Center of Responsive Politics estimates the pullback in campaign funds in the short term could hurt only about a half-dozen Republican House members who challenged the election outcome — all of whom received more than half of their campaign funds from corporate cash.
Corporate cash still flowing
Experts say even small financial impacts likely will be short-lived.
"A number of corporations that have sworn off this kind of giving have a history of giving to super PACs and dark money groups,” Quinn said. "There are still other avenues for influence, and in some ways, even more influence.”
John Kaehny, executive director of the 'good government' group Reinvent Albany, N.Y., predicted the pause on campaign donations will have minimal impact on money in politics.
Long before the mass freeze, he said, many companies sought to buy influence by donating to independent expenditure committees advancing causes that matched the views of particular candidates or sending money to charitable organizations with political ties.
"The money is already going through the back door — through independent expenditures, through political action committees," Kaehny said. "It happens through issue advertising, not through candidate advertising.”
Corporate statements have cited the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 as the catalyst for cutting off lawmakers from donations. But after the election and before Jan. 6, some companies made contributions to candidates who perpetuated false claims of election fraud.
The Coca-Cola Nonpartisan Committee for Good Governance donated $2,500 to Hice on Nov. 16, after he continuously tweeted false claims of “huge corruption” in the Nov. 3 election and fervently insisted Trump was the winner.
Michigan Campaign Finance Network Executive Director Simon Schuster said companies could continue influencing politics through lobbying and other avenues even after swearing off political contributions.
Another report by the Center for Responsive Politics found lobbying spending reached nearly $3.5 billion at the federal level in 2020 — among the biggest spenders were the health sector, real estate, insurance and finance.
"Our political system has a multitude of ways for special interests to exert political influence without it being discovered or disclosed," Schuster said.
‘A slap on the wrist'
In the 2020 election cycle, PACs representing business interests contributed more than $327 million to candidates and party committees, according to reports filed with Federal Election Commission.
Republican candidates and committees received a little more than half — about $180 million.
But how long the hold on donations will last is the big question, said Alan Abramowitz, political science professor at Emory University.
“If this is just a very short-term situation, just like a slap on the wrist … then I would say it's not likely to have much effect,” he said. "If it's more than that, and they're really talking about cutting off contributions — at least to certain Republican members of Congress who voted to overturn the election — I think it is potentially pretty significant.”
The issue is one that likely concerns Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who will need up to a dozen, competitive and highly-funded Senate campaigns in 2022 to win back the chamber, Abramowitz said.
After Republicans lost the House, the White House and the Senate in two years, McConnell has called for election fraud conspiracy theories to stop. If not, there could be continued consequences into the next election cycle, like the corporate world’s halt on donations.
Schuster, who leads the nonprofit watchdog tracking how money influences Michigan politics, said he believes the move by big corporations could have some leverage over the lawmakers they're targeting.
"Does it make a difference? Yes, I think it does, but I think it has more to do with a statement on values ... than it will be able to sway the position of those recipients," Schuster said.
He pointed to how the GOP realigned itself during Donald Trump's presidency and his continued influence on the party.
Lawmakers could be dissuaded from promoting a certain claim to stoke their base if a critical mass of donors cut off campaign funds, Schuster said, “that said, I don't think we've reached that point."
Republican-backers, too, think the funding freeze will be short-lived.
"This is more symbolic than it is consequential,” said Gerard Kassar, chairman of the New York State Conservative Party.
CNHI local and statehouse reporters John Finnerty, Joe Mahoney, Janelle Stecklein, Jordan Travis and Christian Wade contributed to this report.