Jan 7, 2022 - Politics & Policy

New grassroots GOP shuns corporate America

Illustration of an elephant's feet climbing stacks of pennies
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

After Jan. 6, 2021, corporate PACs began cutting off Republican lawmakers who voted against certifying Joe Biden's victory — but it doesn't appear to have done much to alter the lawmakers' behavior.

The big picture: For all the attention on boardrooms and congressional offices, the GOP's drift away from corporate America over the past year is largely a grassroots phenomenon — driven less by executives or members of Congress than the people to whom both camps must answer.

What we're watching: Republican voters and grassroots donors are increasingly hostile to major segments of corporate America.

  • Large drug companies are in the crosshairs of conservative vaccine skeptics. Tech giants are labeled as "woke" or politically correct censors. Issues like trade and immigration pit conservatives against Washington's business lobby.
  • Meanwhile, companies that cut off GOP election objectors — and, more broadly, have engaged on hot-button political and social issues — are responding largely to pressure from their own employees.
  • While Jan. 6 was a watershed moment, some companies also had to navigate issues such as a new Georgia voting law that drew corporate boycott calls.

Be smart: Even if large companies and the members of Congress to whom they once donated wanted to reconcile, they're facing internal pressures from constituencies on opposite sides of a larger American cultural divide.

  • For Republicans, it's a political base disproportionately comprised of retirees, non-college graduates and rural voters.
  • America's white-collar workforce is moving in the opposite direction, with increasing numbers of young college graduates who want to see their employers politically engaged.

By the numbers: Overall fundraising from corporate PACs last year declined significantly from 2019.

  • Republicans nonetheless learned they could easily close any fundraising shortfall by catering to and engaging with grassroots donors.
  • "Once my supporters learned that liberal corporations blacklisted me because I refused to cave to their demands on January 6th, they were happy to make up the difference," Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, wrote in a March memo.
  • "I regained every penny of the $241,000 I lost in corporate money through individual donations."

Those financial incentives — and the ever-present need to maintain support among one's base — have pushed Republicans to be more attuned to a core of political support increasingly hostile to large segments of corporate America.

  • From 2019 to 2021, the share of Republicans who said big business has a positive impact on the country plummeted from 54% to 30%, according to Pew.

As Republican officials cater to their base, corporate executives are, in general, facing pressure from a workforce that's increasingly younger, more highly educated and more attuned to high-profile political, social and cultural issues.

  • By a more than 2-to-1 ratio, American white-collar workers say they want their employers to publicly engage on political and social issues, according to a recent Accountable.US survey.
  • Nearly 7-in-10 government relations executives and corporate PAC managers recently surveyed by the Conference Board said employee pressure contributed to public policy challenges last year.
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