Election 2020 Politics

‘Appropriate’ or ‘not very smart’? Where Mitch McConnell draws the line on corporate political engagement

After Gov. Brian Kemp (R-Ga.) signed an election bill that critics say will make voting more difficult for Black Americans, working-class residents and other historically disenfranchised groups, Republicans said the coverage and the backlash was unfair, based on the final legislation that passed — after a more restrictive bill was walked back — though dozens of executives — including more than 70 Black executives — condemned the law.

“Corporations have to stand up. There is no middle ground,” former American Express chief executive Ken Chenault, one of the first Black chief executives at a Fortune 500 company, said last Wednesday on CNBC. “This is about all Americans having the right to vote, but we need to recognize the special history of the denial of the right to vote for Black Americans, and we will not be silent.”

In the past week, several companies with significant ties to Georgia, including Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola, have expressed their disappointment over the bill calling it “wrong” while defending the right to vote — a move that has attracted the ire of right-wing media, conservative activists and Republican politicians — including McConnell.

McConnell swiftly took umbrage. He labeled the uproar over the bill, what it will actually do and the motives behind it “the big lie” — co-opting the moniker for the unproven election fraud allegations by former president Donald Trump. (It’s true Georgia’s bill expanded the window for voting in some ways, and that Democrats, including President Biden, have falsely described it, though there are also some problems with Republicans’ often cherry-picked comparisons to other states’ voting regulations. Namely, that Georgia’s rationale for enacting this law was predicated on responding to the original “big lie.”)

“I found it completely discouraging to find a bunch of corporate CEOs getting in the middle of politics,” McConnell said in a Monday news conference. “My advice to the corporate CEOs of America is to stay out of politics. Don’t pick sides in these big fights.”

That was a head-spinning rebuke from someone who has previously championed the ability of moneyed interests to wade into politics, especially when it comes to letting them put cash behind their desired outcomes. He clarified his thoughts at a news conference Tuesday.

“They have a right to participate in the political process, they do, but selecting how you do that in a way that doesn’t completely alienate an awful lot of people who depend on your product, strikes me as not very smart,” he said.

“I’m not talking about political contributions,” he later added. “Most of them contribute to both sides, they have political action committees, that’s fine, it’s legal, it’s appropriate, I support that. I’m talking about taking a position on a highly incendiary issue like this and punishing a community or a state because you don’t like a particular law that passed. I just think it’s stupid.”

On Wednesday, McConnell explained himself further, hewing to the charge that the Georgia bill is being misconstrued.

Perhaps he recognized the fundamental flaw of his argument about who should weigh in and how it’s legitimate to do so. But it’s hard to see how he didn’t understand that before, given McConnell is known for being a favorite of chief executives looking to give to congressional candidates.

Executives such as the late casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, hedge fund manager Paul Singer and Houston Texans owner Robert McNair have been some of the most generous contributors to McConnell and GOP causes — something the lawmaker has celebrated and defended in the past.

And that’s the way McConnell seemed to want it based on past comments. The lawmaker praised the 2010 Supreme Court decision that allowed corporations to use money from their general treasuries to support election campaigns.

“For too long, some in this country have been deprived of full participation in the political process,” he said then. “With today’s monumental decision, the Supreme Court took an important step in the direction of restoring the First Amendment rights of these groups by ruling that the Constitution protects their right to express themselves about political candidates and issues up until Election Day.”

As McConnell previously stated, one of the most influential ways that chief executives and other business leaders “express themselves” is through political contributions. These individuals give dollars — lots of them — to candidates and organizations that advocate for policies and ideas that benefit these executives and align with their values and convictions. This was true before the Georgia bill passed — and it continues to be true as leaders of businesses (and their customers) across the country are engaged in conversations about voting rights.

Perhaps this moment is different because leaders aren’t just silently writing checks, but using their voices to make it known to lawmakers and the people they serve that they don’t support the direction that Georgia is headed when it comes to voting access. McConnell may understandably fear that power and influence of these individuals on their customers and voters, others in the business community and ultimately the lawmakers that they have long financially supported.

McConnell’s most recent words — calling it “stupid” for chief executives to take a position on voting rights — give the impression that he only wants executives involved in politics when their political ideologies fall on the right side of the aisle. But the relationship between major corporations and the GOP has been of concern for many among the left’s base, and the lawmaker’s comments are attracting critiques of hypocrisy — and fears about threatening consequences.

Yet it also appears to get to the center of the current political worldview of so many GOP leaders — after all, it is not just McConnell criticizing these business leaders. The fact is the 2020 election had historic voter participation and that did not turn out in Republicans’ favor — and the Georgia GOP is committed to doing something about that.

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