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Are Republicans still the party of big business? How ‘woke’ companies are trying to get back into Congress

Republicans’ rift with corporate America runs deeper than many companies realized.

Corporate America is entering uncharted territory: A Congress where Republicans in key positions are more eager to appease their populist base than to ally themselves with big business.

The fissure between big business and Republicans has been developing for longer and now runs deeper than most realize, Republican strategists say, dating back to Trump’s 2016 campaign and his embrace of anti-elite populism. The weeks following the 2020 election, when companies iced out House Republicans who voted against certifying the election results, represented a climax amid years of escalating tensions over issues like trade. And these problems won’t easily be healed by traditional Washington handshaking and check-writing — though corporations are certainly embracing those strategies.

Lawmakers’ new eagerness to appease the right has changed how many lawmakers gauge what is and isn’t a good policy. While in the past, a lawmaker may have asked what the Chamber of Commerce’s position on a bill is as a reference point, that dynamic has “totally changed,” one lobbyist remarked. Today, they’re more likely to ask: What does the Heritage Foundation think? What about Fox News?

This shift runs deeper than new skepticism of Disney World and corporate “wokeness,” longtime Republicans told Grid, though the perception that corporate elites are leftists has certainly been a factor.

“In order to be successful as a party, we have to have strong support from cultural conservatives, and today they view themselves as populist and think the system is stacked for the left,” said Brad Todd, Republican campaign operative and co-author of “The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics.” “They see corporations kowtowing toward left-wing interests and ideas that have nothing to do with their core businesses.”

House Republicans, spearheaded by lawmakers on the right like Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), have promised a range of investigations into corporate America during the new Congress. “Environment, social and governance” investing that incorporates issues like climate change into investing, utilized by major financial firms like BlackRock and Vanguard, are a frequent topic of scrutiny on Fox and a likely target for congressional investigations too. Many expect lawmakers to probe how major companies operate in China as they seek a more hard-line stance toward the country. And Jordan has already sent letters requesting information from big technology companies — a sign that, as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, such corporations will be a focus.

Companies trying to navigate this new Washington have hired lobbyists and sought counsel on how to avoid the bad press and damaged relationships that accompany congressional investigations like the ones being promised by Jordan and others.

The math working against corporate America is simple: 158 of the 222 Republicans in the House this Congress either voted against certifying the 2020 election results or said it was fraudulent as candidates on the campaign trail, according to a Grid analysis. Many of these lawmakers found themselves under fire in the wake of Jan. 6, when some of the biggest companies across the country declared they would not give corporate PAC money to such members.

“A majority of the new majority were labeled as election deniers by former supporters. Now, these lawmakers are on subcommittees, chairmanships, even leadership,” said Sam Geduldig, a lobbyist and former aide to House leaders whose clients include major corporations. “They remember being banned from PAC contributions, and they remember the things outspoken corporate executives said.”

Trying to make up

Companies’ name-and-shame approach to Jan. 6 did damage to relationships in Washington. In the months since, big corporations have quietly been working to get back into the good graces of lawmakers, adopting the traditional wine-and-dine approach to relationship building by hiring lobbyists and cutting campaign checks.

Spending from corporate PACs to Washington Republicans dipped during the 2022 midterms after the high-profile Jan. 6 spending bans: Republicans’ campaigns in Congress took in a total of $83 million from corporate PACs during the midterms, $38 million less than they had raised during the 2018 midterms, according to an analysis by the watchdog End Citizens United. That $83 million haul was still larger than Democrats’ fundraising of $69 million from corporate PACs during the 2022 midterms.

Right-leaning super PACs took in $114 million from corporations during the 2022 midterms — double what they raised during the last midterms in 2018 — including major donations from companies like American Express and United Healthcare that paused their giving in the wake of Jan. 6, according to data collected by the nonprofit OpenSecrets.

As companies prepared for a Republican Congress, they hired a bevy of high-profile Republican lobbyists, some of them with experience working for far-right lawmakers.

Companies’ eagerness to connect to newly-empowered lawmakers doesn’t guarantee lawmakers on the right will listen, longtime Washington insiders cautioned.

“Lobbying is still a priority, and it’s still important. It just will not guarantee that you won’t end up appearing at an [Oversight Committee] hearing. There’s just no guarantee,” said Christopher Armstrong, a former Capitol Hill counsel who advises companies on congressional investigations at the lobbying firm Holland & Knight. “It’s almost impossible to lobby your way out of a subpoena.”

A conference at odds with itself

The chilly relationship between corporate America and many members of Congress stands in stark contrast to the modus operandi of the new speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy.

McCarthy has long been known as one of the most prolific fundraisers in politics, adept at wooing both big donors and corporations. As a membership of House leadership for the last decade, he was the figurehead tasked with raising money for Congressional Leadership Fund, the central super PAC that spends money to reelect House Republicans — and McCarthy has repeatedly set and broken his own records, most recently pulling in $181 million for the 2022 midterms. Last January, as McCarthy prepared Republicans’ affront to retake the House, he raised nearly $10 million one evening during a single fundraiser at the Trump Hotel.

McCarthy has aligned himself with the business community in the past, as have other top Republican leaders like Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.). But as January’s struggle over his election to the House speakership showed, McCarthy and his allies will also have to heed to the opinions of lawmakers on the right.

Several lawmakers affiliated with the far-right Freedom Caucus nabbed key committee positions after McCarthy won the speaker’s gavel. Perhaps most notable is Freedom Caucus co-founder Rep. Jordan’s new post as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a new Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government.

These two committees will spearhead Republicans’ oversight efforts. While Democrats control the Senate and White House, their actions could be some of the most high-profile, and impactful, actions of the new Congress.

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