WASHINGTON – Top Republican officials continue to push back against a surge of major companies and corporate leaders who oppose new voting laws being pursued by Republicans in dozens of states, with fresh signs that some in the GOP are waiting to see how far companies are willing to go on this issue.
Even as executives representing a wide swath of Corporate America discussed via Zoom last weekend potentially withholding political donations and business investments over the issue, speakers at the Republican National Committee retreat in Palm Beach were pledging to continue the fight. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was applauded at the RNC meeting for attacking Major League Baseball, among others, according to a recording obtained by The Washington Post.
“Major businesses who are getting in bed with the left, the corporate media and big tech … these corporate executives have no backbone, they don’t want to be criticized by the corporate partisan media – they cave, they virtue signal in one direction,” DeSantis said.
“You have these woke corporations who are colluding with all those folks,” he continued. “We have to stand up for ourselves, we’ve got to fight back.”
On Wednesday, hundreds of major companies and corporate leaders released a joint statement that said voting is “the lifeblood of our democracy” and “we must ensure the right to vote for all of us” – a seeming rebuke of the hostile tone coming from Republicans who insist the laws are needed for election security and companies should stay out of politics.
The developments could possibly reshape political giving and potentially fracture a long-held alliance between the GOP and corporate business giants, who are increasingly under pressure to take political stands – and can feel the backlash for doing it. “I think what is happening is new,” said Steven Law, who runs the Senate Leadership PAC, the major fundraising arm for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Political groups say corporate PAC giving is down this year across the board.
Still, it remains to be seen whether the mounting rhetorical attacks will lead to an actual rupture between corporations and the GOP.
Wednesday’s statement by corporate leaders – which cast the issue as nonpartisan – included support from recognizable corporate names such as Target, Netflix, Bank of America, Facebook, Cisco, Twitter, Microsoft, Starbucks, Amazon, Mastercard, American Airlines, United Airlines and Vanguard, as well as prominent people such as investor Warren Buffett, law firms and nonprofit organizations.
The statement was also notable for the names that were missing, including Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola – two companies that earlier this month were among the first to oppose new voting rules in their home state of Georgia.
The statement was discussed during the Zoom meeting of corporate leaders last weekend and published Wednesday as an ad in The Washington Post, the New York Times and other major newspapers.
The current crop of voting measures being debated in statehouses nationwide is fueled by lingering animosity over the last presidential election, when baseless accusations of voter fraud resulted in Republican officials pushing for restrictive new laws.
“The legislation is so egregious and so targeted as to keep certain types of people from voting – I think it’s wonderful that Corporate America is taking a stand,” said one of the signers, Debra Lee, the former chief executive of Black Entertainment Television, who sits on four corporate boards.
But it remains unclear how far companies are willing to go to address concerns about voting rights.
Some GOP operatives believe the tensions will die down once the business community realizes it needs the GOP as it faces a Democratic White House proposing major new spending and potentially higher corporate tax rates.
“I am curious to see how corporations are going to feel once they start feeling the wrath of this administration, which is going to raise their taxes,” said Lisa Spies, a prominent GOP fundraiser.
Spies said she suspected much of the controversy churned was for “public display” and “a lot of these people are still donating and very active.”
Law said he didn’t think Major League Baseball thought through its decision this month to move the All-Star Game from Georgia to Colorado over a voting rights bill.
“There can be an astonishing cost as to what they might always think is virtue signaling,” Law said.
“This is happening at the same time the new Biden administration is planning very aggressive moves that will be largely hostile to the business interests of these companies,” Law said.
He also pointed out the absence of Coca-Cola and Delta from Wednesday’s statement. “That could suggest that these companies learned the hard way, that when you go out relying on fake talking points supplied by (leading Georgia Democrats) Stacey Abrams and Raphael Warnock, you do so at your own risk,” Law said.
A Delta Air Lines spokeswoman declined to comment further about why it did not sign Wednesday’s statement, pointing to a statement made by the carrier’s CEO March 31. Coca-Cola said it did not receive the statement or a request to sign it and that its “focus has been on meeting and collaborating with local groups, and we have spoken up in support of the foundational right to vote.”
Several company officials said their decision to sign Wednesday’s statement was not a partisan one.
“We believe that is a false talking point that is being mounted by the individuals who are trying to restrict voting access to large segments of Americans,” said Neil Blumenthal, co-CEO of Warby Parker.
The statement came after Kenneth Chenault, the former chief executive of American Express, and Kenneth Frazier, the chief executive of Merck, pushed companies to take a stand on what they viewed as discriminatory laws on voting.
Chenault and Frazier coordinated a letter signed last month by 72 Black business executives that made a similar point – a letter that first drew attention to the voting bills in executive suites across the country.
Dozens of law firms also signed the statement, representing a growing effort to fight restrictive voting laws in court. Among the firms listed were Squire, Patton, Boggs; Cravath, Swaine and Moore; Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Feld; and Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison.
There was also a smattering of celebrities – some with their own companies – included on the statement, such as Naomi Campbell, Tracee Ellis Ross, Katy Perry and Gwyneth Paltrow.
The fight has left some business leaders torn.
Kathryn Wylde, who leads the Partnership for New York City, which calls much of the elite business community its members, said Republicans tend to see the voting rights issue as a partisan effort to shore up the chances of a continued Democratic majority.
“The Black executives don’t see it as a partisan issue. They see it as a civil rights issue,” Wylde said. “But a lot of the businesses can’t afford to alienate the Republicans who have defined this as a partisan issue. The reason people didn’t sign is that.”
But it is not a fight either side seemed ready to back away from.
Reid Hoffman, the co-founder and former chairman of Linkedin, said he expects the business community to keep fighting.
“My hope would be a willingness to go all the way on this issue,” he said.