In the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection, scores of corporations promised to cease donations to the 147 Republicans who voted to overturn the election results. More than a year later, many have quietly reneged on that promise.
Judd Legum, who has tracked corporations’ promises and donations in the wake of the insurrection, joined Boston Public Radio in advance of Thursday’s House Select Committee hearings on Jan. 6 to share his findings.
Fifteen companies, including AT&T, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Walgreens and Walmart, have restarted directly donating to Republicans who voted to overturn the election. Ten companies have donated to larger multi-candidate groups that include the election objectors. Another 100 companies pledged to either suspend or reevaluate their political spending and have since resumed their direct or indirect donations, as of Legum’s latest research by June 7.
“I think for some companies, it was definitely just marketing,” Legum said. He pointed to AT&T as an example, which made its pledge in January 2020. Then, the company donated to a multi-candidate group, claiming their money was not going to any of the 147 Republicans. In 2022, the company donated more than $200,000 to dozens of the Republican objectors.
He also pointed out that public opinion may not matter as much to companies who don't rely on everyday consumers as customers. “Some of the first companies that ended up giving to the folks who voted to overturn the election on January 6 were defense contractors, because they really don't have to worry about how they're perceived, except for among members of Congress,” he said.
For Republicans who make election lies a core part of their platform, Legum noted that they are not feeling a huge financial hit after losing some corporate donations. “They've been able to tap into the energy around the Big Lie about the election and use that as a fundraising vehicle and so for them, their contributions are larger than ever,” he said.
Legum and his team have found 33 companies kept their promises not to donate to the 147 Republicans, including Airbnb, American Express, Eversource Energy and Vertex. Another group of 26 companies have kept pledges to suspend all PAC donations, among which are Target, Facebook and Bank of America.
Over time, he expects more companies will go back on their promises, especially as some predict Republicans will gain ground in the midterm elections this fall. “This isn't only speculation, there's been reporting in the Wall Street Journal and in my own conversations with people in the PAC world,” he said. “People are being very direct about, ‘Now is the time to resume these contributions or you're not going to get meetings.’”
As for corporations, paying their way to the good side of a politician often pays off. “It's the annual appropriations, it's regulations, these companies might need something slipped into a bill and in the past they've been able to rely on X, Y, Z congressperson to get that in in the chaos of these huge omnibus bills,” Legum explained. “That person might not be around if they don't resume contributions. So that's really the leverage, and for many of these companies, it's working.”
It wasn’t always this way. Legum pointed to the 1980s as a moment where corporate spending on politics grew, a shift he attributed to companies’ growing emphasis on pleasing shareholders and maximizing quarterly profits.
“Companies in the ’50s and ’60s, if you looked at corporate annual reports, they would brag about how much tax money they spent ... because that was sort of seen as part of what it meant to be a good corporate citizen,” Legum said. “As it's become more important to drive your tax rate down to drive away any regulation that could get in the way of profits ... one of the ways to make sure to do that is to make sure that you're very well connected politically.”
In terms of the everyday consumer’s impact on corporate spending, Legum feels mixed as to how effective they can be in holding large corporations accountable. He also tracks corporate spending around other issues including climate change, abortion and LGBTQ rights, and knows that few companies have consistent politics.
“A company that's good on one issue may not be as good on another,” he said. “Fundamentally, I think that there needs to be a shift both in the way corporations operate, and the way the government operates to make some systemic changes. It's going to be hard for you as an individual consumer to change the way things are done.”
Still, Legum believes ordinary people can wield some power. “I do think over time, just allowing people to realize that consumers are paying attention, that they're focused in on these issues makes a difference,” he said. “That's why these companies decided to stop making these contributions, and they were stuck doing it to begin with.”
Judd Legum writes the newsletter Popular Information, and was previously the founder and editor of ThinkProgress.