Corporations including Verizon and Pfizer financed a political group that aided in the election of the state lawmakers behind some of the country’s most extreme abortion bans.
New data compiled by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Political Accountability (CPA) found that public companies and trade associations gave roughly $25.9 million to the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) in the 2018 election. The RSLC is a political organization that helps elect Republicans to state office, including playing a critical role in redistricting efforts.
Some of the political group’s biggest funders are also some of the best-known corporations in the United States. In 2018, investment conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway—which owns stakes in companies such as Kraft Heinz, Dairy Queen, Fruit of the Loom, and Benjamin Moore & Co.—gave $696,328. Pharmaceutical corporations were also major donors: AstraZeneca gave $426,916, Pfizer $326,214, and Eli Lilly $323,972. Health insurance company Anthem gave $460,000.
Telecommunications giants Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon gave $310,459, $170,798, and $75,000, respectively. Coca-Cola gave $67,637, 3M $66,989, and PepsiCo $28,096. Cigarette and tobacco corporations were the biggest donors, according to CPA’s analysis. British American Tobacco gave the most—a staggering $1,274,769 and Altria another $1,227,297.
Those contributions compromised just under 58 percent of the $45.2 million raised by the GOP-focused political group, according to CPA.
Trade associations were also major contributors to the RSLC that campaign cycle. The United States Chamber of Commerce alone gave over $2 million, while the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) gave over $837,00, and the American Beverage Association just over $100,000.
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In Georgia, where GOP lawmakers passed a near-total abortion ban earlier this year that is currently being challenged in court, CPA found that the RSLC spent roughly $1.2 million in the state’s elections during the 2018 cycle. That includes about $34,000 to the RSLC Georgia PAC and another $1.1 million on independent expenditures opposing Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams along with other state Democrats.
In November, Abrams lost a contentious gubernatorial race to anti-choice Republican Brian Kemp, who eagerly signed the state’s near-total ban on abortion in May. Abrams, a pro-choice advocate, has been vocal in her condemnation of her home state’s anti-abortion restrictions.
Alabama state lawmakers in May passed the most restrictive abortion ban in the country, the “Human Life Protection Act,” into law. Though it’s currently being challenged in court, if enacted it would ban abortion except in cases of life endangerment. The RSLC directly funded two of the Alabama Republican state senate members who voted for the bill: Andrew Jones and Larry Stutts.
Stutts also voted against allowing an amendment to the legislation for cases of rape and incest, as AL.com reported. He describes himself on his campaign website as a “100% pro-life” OB-GYN who in the state senate “has been an unashamed advocate for life from conception to natural death, and he will continue fighting for the right to life at all stage.” He also serves as the medical director of Shoals Sav-A-Life, an anti-choice crisis pregnancy organization and co-sponsored a ban targeting dilation and evacuation (D and E) abortions. Jones, voted into the state senate in 2018, says on his campaign site he is “committed to [doing] everything possible to help protect the sanctity of human life.”
The RSLC also funded the political organizations that helped elect a slew of Missouri Republicans who supported the state’s omnibus anti-abortion ban, the “Missouri Stands for the Unborn Act.” That legislation, signed into law in May, bans abortion at eight weeks’ gestation and would automatically ban abortion in the state should Roe v. Wade be overturned. CPA found that the RSLC during the 2018 election cycle gave almost $50,000 to the RSLC Missouri PAC, which then gave roughly $45,000 to the Missouri House Republican Campaign Committee. That cycle, the Missouri House Republican Campaign Committee made direct expenditures to support Republicans in 37 state house districts, according to CPA, 31 of whom won their races. All but one of those lawmakers later voted for the extreme abortion ban.
As Alex Kotch reported for Sludge, an investigative news site covering money in politics, corporate donations also enabled a “web of state and national groups [who have] spent millions of dollars on organizing and lobbying in the states to pass this year’s abortion bans.”
Another review of campaign finance records by Popular Information similarly found that while many companies “present themselves as champions of women and gender equality” in their corporate literature, “they have collectively donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to politicians seeking to roll back reproductive rights.”
Bruce Freed, the president and co-founder of CPA, told Rewire.News corporations frequently donate to political organizations on both sides of the aisle. However, “what’s absolutely critical” to understand, he says, is that companies give to political organizations, but aren’t “paying attention to the consequences of the contributions.”
“They are associated with the outcomes because they facilitated the outcomes,” Freed said. “If you take a look at Georgia, that $1.2 million that the Republican State Leadership Committee spent in the Georgia state elections in 2018 was critical for electing a legislature, then that then, in turn, passes extreme legislation.”
Freed added that “it can hurt companies” to be associated with the “controversial outcomes” of their political spending. “There are business consequences, bottom-line consequences, [and] reputational consequences that can really harm companies,” he said.
There is evidence that consumer backlash can make a difference in how corporations allocate their spending. Freed pointed to a 2018 decision by Publix to halt political spending after it faced criticism for hefty donations to Florida Republican gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam, who was endorsed by the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the state’s 2018 GOP primary. After a 2018 report from the Tampa Bay Times found that Publix had given Putnam over $670,000 in the three years prior, the grocer faced threats of a boycott and die-ins, led by activists including survivors of the Parkland shooting.
A 2018 CPA report underscored this, finding that in a polarized political climate this makes companies “highly vulnerable to reputational and financial risks, even if these risks have not fully materialized yet.” Companies “don’t get a free pass for their political spending,” Freed said. “And this spending through the third-party groups, you know, really poses a real challenge that they need to deal with.”