Where do business political donations go?

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Which political party is the party of business? That answer used to seem easy.

Corporate interests have never been a political monolith, but in recent history, they’ve leaned strongly to the right. Republicans’ relationship with big business is changing, though, and it could play a role in the 2024 election.

Donations from U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the second-largest lobbying group on Capitol Hill, have overwhelmingly gone to the GOP during the past two decades, including more than triple the amount given to Republican recipients over Democratic ones in last year’s election, data from Open Secrets shows. While many Republicans still share common cause with corporate interests, attitudes toward big business in the party have soured.

A record low 18% of Republicans have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in big business, according to a Gallup poll released last month, and top Republicans from former President Donald Trump to Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida have singled out companies for criticism in recent years.

As companies took public stances on social issues like same-sex marriage and anti-racism during the 2010s and into the 2020s, they’ve become targets for conservative critics who disagree with them, and polling shows the relationship deteriorating around this time. The number of Republicans with “very little” or “no” confidence in big business has grown from 16% in 2018 to 35% this year.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ relationship with Disney is perhaps the most striking example of how much the GOP’s relationship with business has changed: 72 years ago, animators from Walt Disney Studios made a campaign ad for a Republican candidate; now, a Republican presidential candidate has called the media and entertainment company “woke” and revoked its special district status after the company criticized his policy of restricting gender and sex lessons for young students.

DeSantis said Monday that he’s “basically moved on” from the fight with Disney and suggested the company drop its suit against the state of Florida. That, along with brand fears over conservative boycotts like the boycott Bud Light faced, suggests the possibility of a truce if politicians and businesses believe the cost of feuding has gotten too high.

Mark Mizruchi, a professor of sociology at the University of Michigan who studies corporate political behavior, said he sees corporate interests losing some of their influence due to changing Republican attitudes. The business community is collectively less powerful than it used to be, he argued, although individual companies can still “get all kinds of favors, specifically for themselves.”

“I think in that respect they’re as powerful as they’ve ever been, but on issues that require them to act collectively, I do think that they’re weaker than they used to be,” Mizruchi said.

That was a takeaway this year on Capitol Hill after the Chamber of Commerce lobbied for lawmakers to raise the debt ceiling. “That probably cost us numerous votes,” Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., told Bloomberg Businessweek of the group’s lobbying for the bipartisan measure, which passed with many but not all House Republicans voting in favor. “All the chamber did by trying to weigh in was convince them that it was a bad idea. So, yeah, they had influence. Unfortunately it wasn’t the influence they think they had.”

Many companies announced they’d stop donating to election deniers following the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, but it hasn’t been completely permanent. As of January 2023, more than 70 companies had given more than $10 million to lawmakers who had objected to certifying the 2020 results, according to Politico.

Still, some corporate interests are keeping their distance from Republicans seen by some as right-wing, like in Arizona. A tightly contested swing state where candidates like former TV news anchor Kari Lake have edged out moderates in primary contests only to lose to a Democratic candidate in the general election, many corporate donors are “simply sitting on the sidelines,” Republican consultant Kevin DeMenna told the Arizona Republic.

Without staunch allies on the right, big business might find itself a little more politically homeless than it once was in the past. Still, their “breakup” with Republicans doesn’t mean they’ll suddenly become pro-Democratic, Mizruchi, the professor, said.

“Whether there’s been any kind of shift towards the Democrats now, I don’t see that at all,” he said.

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