McConnell in tricky spot with GOP, big biz

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a longtime ally of the business community, now finds himself in a tricky position of having to manage the GOP’s increasingly awkward relationship with corporate America. 

McConnell, in a major break from character, earlier this week slammed companies such as Major League Baseball, Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola for criticizing Georgia’s new election law, which President Biden called “Jim Crow in the 21st century.” 

The GOP leader called that a complete mischaracterization and has repeatedly pointed to a Washington Post analysis giving Biden “four Pinocchios” for “falsely” claiming Georgia’s statute ends voting hours earlier. 

On Monday, he went further by warning that companies “will invite serious consequences if they become a vehicle for far-left mobs to hijack our country from outside the constitutional order.”

The following day he said it was “stupid” for corporations to wade into politically divisive battles because “Republicans drink Coca-Cola too, and we fly and we like baseball.”

“So my warning, if you will, to corporate America is to stay out of politics,” he told reporters in Louisville, Ky. “It’s not what you’re designed for. And don’t be intimidated by the left into taking up causes that put you right in the middle of one of America’s greatest political debates.”

He would later back away from those warnings.

Still, Republican strategists say McConnell’s uncharacteristically sharp tone is a reflection of a party that has become more populist and one where corporate behavior that some Republicans see as catering to what they call “wokeness” or “cancel culture” doesn’t play well with the conservative base.

At the other end of the fight are major companies that are latching onto social issues, whether it’s clamping down on social media posts or protesting Georgia’s new election law, in ways that are alienating many Republicans. 

The announcement by Major League Baseball last week that it would pull the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta in protest of the Georgia voting law sparked a severe backlash from conservatives across the country. GOP lawmakers are even looking at revoking MLB’s long-held antitrust exemption.

“The grassroots activism against large corporations based mainly on social issues is going to have an impact. I’m an admirer of McConnell. I think he knows what he’s doing as a leader. I think he’s been very good for business. I think he’s got his hands full trying to keep that relationship together in view of what’s happening at the grassroots in our party and in view of what’s happening with corporate executives,” said Vin Weber, a Republican strategist and former member of Congress.

Proponents of limiting corporate influence on elections found McConnell’s criticism of corporate involvement in politics to be completely out of step with his longtime advocacy for loosening restrictions on businesses looking to open their checkbooks for politicians and political causes.

McConnell on Tuesday said he didn’t have a problem with companies spending money on political ads during an election season or giving contributions to candidates through their PACs. But he criticized what he called the use of “economic blackmail to spread disinformation and push bad ideas that citizens reject at the ballot box.”

He noted that many corporate CEOs and executives “contribute to both sides” and “have political action committees.” 

“That’s fine. It’s legal, it’s appropriate, I support that,” he said.

But the distinction was slammed by his critics.

“It’s absurd. It’s Sen. McConnell believing he can say completely contradictory things and get away with it. He has spent years defending and seeking funds from corporate executives, from corporate PACs. He led the challenge to the ban on soft money, which included corporate money,” said Fred Wertheimer, founder and president of Democracy 21, a nonprofit organization that seeks to limit the influence of money in politics. 

McConnell on Wednesday backed away from his warnings earlier this week that companies should stay out of politics. 

“Let me say, I didn’t say that very artfully yesterday. They’re certainly entitled to be involved in politics. They are,” he said at a press conference in Paducah, Ky.

McConnell went on to say that he was more upset that corporate CEOs have come out publicly against the Georgia law when many Republicans argue it’s not more restrictive than rules in Democratic-led states like Delaware and New York.

“My principal complaint is they didn’t read the darn bill,” he said on Wednesday.

Wertheimer said McConnell is “not kidding anyone” with a walk-back that came “too late.”

“He spent most of his career promoting and seeking funds from corporate interests because he thought they would benefit his party. Now when corporations take a position opposed to his party, all of the sudden he has this bolt out of the blue that corporations should stay out of politics,” Wertheimer said.

Wertheimer noted that McConnell, for most of his career, has been a pro-business establishment Republican while “the former president has turned the Republican Party into a populist party. And it does create conflicting situations for Sen. McConnell.”

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) tweeted on Wednesday that next week he will introduce “a trust busting agenda for 21st century” in response to what he sees as Silicon Valley’s censorship of conservative speech and other companies, including MLB, taking a strong public stance against Georgia’s election law. 

“MLB & the giant woke corporations keep telling Biden’s big lie about Georgia & election integrity. They want to run this country. They’ve been coddled by government for too long. We need to bust them up,” Hawley tweeted.

Weber says big business’s relationship with the Republican Party is at risk if CEOs continue to champion social issues popular with liberals.

“Corporations seem to — at least in individual cases — care as much about the social issues as they do about economic issues. And if that’s the case, the Republicans are going to be forced to divorce them,” he said.

The latest salvo from the tech sector came Wednesday when Twitter announced it will not allow an archive of former President Trump’s tweets on its platform. The move came about three months after CEO Jack Dorsey permanently barred Trump from Twitter in the wake of a pro-Trump mob storming the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Brian Darling, a Republican strategist and former Senate aide, said McConnell is “right” in going after big businesses that are picking sides. 

“I think most Americans understood what he’s saying — that corporations shouldn’t get involved in these purely partisan fights, the cancel culture, trying to cancel Georgia because they passed a law that Democrats don’t like,” he said. 

Darling added that while the GOP has become more populist after four years of Trump’s leadership, corporations are also becoming more activist on cultural issues. 

“There’s a resistance in the Republican Party to woke corporations and corporations that are being advised and pressured into taking left-wing positions on policy issues,” he said.

Tags All-Star Game Baseball big business business community Coca-Cola Co. corporate America Delta Air Lines Donald Trump Georgia Georgia voting law Joe Biden Josh Hawley Kentucky Mitch McConnell MLB Silicon Valley

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