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Amazon embraces combative role in 2020 race

Illustration of an Amazon box with a boxing glove bursting out on a spring.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Amazon has a strategy in the face of attacks from several Democratic presidential candidates: hitting back.

Why it matters: A Democratic administration could mean tougher antitrust enforcement, and some candidates have gone as far as promising they will try to break up Amazon and other tech giants.

The big picture: Big Tech has become a political symbol of out-of-control corporate power. But while Google and Facebook have largely avoided mixing it up with specific candidates, Amazon is punching back.

Details:

  • Elizabeth Warren touted her plan to break up tech giants as a way to stop “corporations like Amazon from knocking out the rest of the competition." The company responded that “sellers aren’t being 'knocked out' — they’re seeing record sales every year.” (It also noted that “Walmart is much larger.")
  • Andrew Yang told GeekWire that Amazon was driving job loss. The company pushed back with data on the number of Americans in employs.
  • Joe Biden said this month that he had “nothing against Amazon, but no company pulling in billions of dollars of profits should pay a lower tax rate than firefighters and teachers." The company said that it pays “every penny we owe” and that it assumed “VP Biden’s complaint is w/ the tax code, not Amazon."
  • It has also tussled publicly with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) over her criticisms of how Amazon treats its warehouse workers.

Yes, but: Amazon's defensive postures don't always last.

  • The company blasted Bernie Sanders last year when he accused it of underpaying warehouse workers — only to reverse course and raise its minimum wage to $15 after the criticism kept coming.

A person familiar with the thinking inside Amazon said executives particularly want to respond when they think candidates are making inaccurate claims about the business as part of their criticism.

  • Amazon hits back against Democrats so much harder than it does against President Trump, who beats up on the company all the time but elicits barely a peep in response. The source says the company thinks Trump's attacks are being effectively corrected by the media.

Between the lines: While Amazon fights its biggest Democratic critics publicly, some executives are also making friends with other 2020 candidates.

  • General Counsel David Zapolsky and Chief Financial Officer Brian Olsavsky each gave the maximum donation of $2,800 to the primary campaign of their home-state governor, Jay Inslee.
  • Jay Carney, a former White House press secretary who is now in charge of Amazon’s policy and communications teams, has given $250 each to Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg.
  • Booker, O’Rourke and Buttigieg have all pushed back against the idea of breaking up big tech; Harris has been more critical of Amazon in particular.

The bottom line: Amazon is toeing a fine line — countering its critics without being so aggressive that it alienates its customers.

  • “They’re not a politician. The public doesn’t want them to behave like one,” said Leslie Dach, the public relations expert who helped Walmart respond to progressive critics earlier in this century. “You can wage a PR war, or you can actually change.”