Republican donations surge despite corporate boycott after Capitol riots

James Oliphant, Jason Lange, Julia Harte and Tim Reid
·8-min read

By James Oliphant, Jason Lange, Julia Harte and Tim Reid

(Reuters) - Right after the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, dozens of U.S. companies announced they would halt political donations to the 147 Republican lawmakers who voted to overturn Donald Trump’s presidential election loss. Two months later, there is little sign that the corporate revolt has done any real damage to Republican fundraising.

If anything, the biggest backers of Trump’s false election-fraud narrative - such as Missouri Senator Josh Hawley and Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene - have been rewarded with a flood of grassroots donations, more than offsetting the loss of corporate money. And contributions from both small donors and rich individuals looking to fight the Democratic agenda have poured into the party’s fundraising apparatus.

The boycott’s limited impact underscores the diminishing role of corporate money in U.S. politics. Individual donations of $200 or less have made up a growing share of campaign money in recent years, while the share given by corporate America shrinks. That trend has accelerated with the rise of anti-establishment figures on both the right and left, such as Trump and progressive firebrand Bernie Sanders, a Vermont senator. (For a graphic on the shift in campaign finance, click https://tmsnrt.rs/3kL3Zzt)

Reuters examined contributions by more than 45 corporate donor committees that vowed to cut off the 147 Republicans - eight senators and 139 members of the House of Representatives. The review found that the political action committees (PACs) gave about $5 million to the lawmakers during the 2019-2020 election cycle - or only about 1% of the money the lawmakers raised, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) disclosures.

By comparison, Republican fundraising operations supporting Senate and House candidates raked in a combined $15.8 million in January alone on the strength of small-dollar donations. These groups outraised their Democratic counterparts by more than $2 million that month, regulatory filings show.

Interviews with Republican operatives, big-money donors and fundraisers revealed little apprehension that corporate outrage over the Jan. 6 Capitol riots would damage the party’s fundraising for the 2022 congressional elections.

Dan Eberhart, a major Republican fundraiser, said he had predicted for years that Trump's support would collapse. He believed the Capitol insurrection would be the tipping point.

"The data is the opposite,” Eberhart said. “You are seeing a hardening of support for Trump … I think there will be no shortage of money.”

Some Republicans and lobbyists believe that companies now backing away from the 147 lawmakers - or from political giving entirely - will reconsider that stance as their interests are threatened by the policies of a Democratic White House and Congress.

“The Democrats have become our best fundraisers," said Fred Zeidman, a Republican donor and fundraiser in Houston and chairman of investment bank Gordian Group.

In a sign the corporate backlash may already be fading, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation's leading business lobby, said Friday that it has decided not to boycott the Republican lawmakers after discussions with more than 100 companies.

Ashlee Rich Stephenson, the chamber's political strategist, wrote in a memo to members that there is a "meaningful difference" between members who voted to overturn the election in some states and those who "continue to engage in repeated action and undermine the legitimacy of our elections," such as trumpeting debunked conspiracy theories.

Among the more than 45 corporate PACs examined by Reuters, the five that donated the most to federal candidates in the 2019-2020 election cycle are controlled by AT&T, Comcast, Honeywell, Home Depot and New York Life Insurance. Asked for comment on this story, AT&T and Comcast declined and the others did not respond.

RISING GRASSROOTS POWER

The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), which supports House candidates, raised $7.5 million in January, outpacing its Democratic counterpart by about $500,000, FEC filings show.

The Republican organization backing Senate candidates is chaired by Florida Senator Rick Scott, who voted after the Capitol riots to overturn Pennsylvania’s Electoral College results. It collected more than $8.3 million in January, compared to $6.1 million received by its Democratic counterpart.

That performance came despite the dearth of corporate contributions. Ten corporate PACs examined by Reuters slashed donations in January by more than 90% compared to the same month in 2017, right after the previous presidential election. All ten of the PACs had sworn off donating to the 147 lawmakers.

Asked about the corporate boycott, NRCC chairman Tom Emmer, a Minnesota congressman, told Reuters that Republican House members "don’t answer to PACs. We answer to voters."

The Senate fundraising committee did not respond to requests for comment.

The waning importance of corporate money reflects a fundamental shift in fundraising over the past decade as the advent of online platforms such as Act Blue and WinRed made it easy to solicit donations from rank-and-file voters. Individual donations, small and large, accounted for two-thirds of funding for last year's elections. PACs made up only about 4%, down from 9% in 2016, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. PACs are typically controlled by corporations, industry groups and labor groups.

The biggest beneficiaries of rising small-dollar donations are often rabble-rousing politicians who vow to take on the Washington establishment.

Nearly half of the $774 million Trump raised for the 2020 election came from donations of $200 or less. In 2012, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney raised just 17% of his money that way. Sanders, a left-wing independent, refused to take corporate money and still raised hundreds of millions of dollars in small donations to support his 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.

‘UNREAL!’ DONATIONS

On the night of the riots, lawmakers came out of hiding to return to the vandalized halls of the Capitol to vote on objections to the Electoral College results in Arizona and Pennsylvania. Certifying the winner is normally a formality, but the 147 Republican lawmakers unsuccessfully tried to overturn those states' results after Trump spent months falsely claiming that Democrats had stolen the election. (For a graphic on the 147 lawmakers, click https://tmsnrt.rs/2LitFGv; For a graphic on how the Electoral College works, click https://tmsnrt.rs/3t5qge7)

Hawley, the Missouri senator, was pilloried by Republicans and Democrats for leading the coalition of Senate objectors. He took in $969,000 in donations in January, according to a Feb. 1 memo posted on his website. That is eight times some $120,000 in donations Hawley raised in the first quarter of 2020, regulatory filings show.

The corporate PACs that have stopped donating “account for a VERY small percentage of total fundraising that is more than offset by a huge surge in grassroots support,” Hawley’s pollster, Wes Anderson, wrote in the memo.

Hawley’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Greene - the freshman congresswoman who has come under fire for promoting baseless conspiracy theories - said in Twitter posts that she had netted $335,000 in contributions on Feb. 2 and 3 alone. On Feb. 4, the House of Representatives voted to strip Greene of two committee assignments over her remarks, including those in which she advocated violence against Democrats.

“UNREAL! $175,000!!” Greene said in one Twitter post. Democrats are “attacking me because I’m one of you... We will never give up!” she said in another.

Greene’s campaign did not respond to queries from Reuters.

Eberhart, the Republican fundraiser, held two fundraising events for Hawley when he ran for the Senate in 2018. Eberhart said he called Hawley in mid-January, expecting him to sound beleaguered after taking widespread criticism over his role in trying to overturn the election.

"He sounded energized, at ease; he'd been receiving a huge amount of national support," Eberhart said. “The grassroots are as charged up as ever.”

SILENT WEALTHY DONORS

While some corporations have condemned the 147 Republicans and cut off contributions, mega-rich individual donors have largely stayed quiet since the Capitol riots.

Reuters asked 15 of the largest Republican donors, many on Wall Street, if they are reconsidering political donations in the wake of the insurrection. Five - Kenneth Griffin; Steve Schwarzman; Richard Uihlein; Jeffrey Yass; Kelcy Warren - declined to comment. Nine others - Charles Schwab, Bernard Marcus, Laura Perlmutter, Joe Ricketts, Vince McMahon, Shirley Ryan, Ronnie Cameron, Paul Singer and Warren Stephens - did not respond to queries.

A spokesman for Jeffrey Sprecher - chief executive of exchange company ICE and husband of former U.S. Senate candidate Kelly Loeffler - said that ICE had suspended its PAC contributions indefinitely after Jan. 6. The spokesman declined to comment further, including on Sprecher’s donations as an individual.

The brisk fundraising since the insurrection indicates that most Republican voters are “comfortable” with the party that has been remade in Trump’s mold, says J. Miles Coleman, a nonpartisan analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

“The Republican Party – it’s not going to go back to the party it was before Trump,” he said.

(Reporting by James Oliphant, Jason Lange, Julia Harte and Tim Reid; additional reporting by Svea Herbst, David Shepardson, Michelle Price, Mike Stone; editing by Soyoung Kim and Brian Thevenot)