An arm of the Republican Party that works to elect state-level officials around the country has been using the coronavirus to surreptitiously boost its corporate donors.
The State Government Leadership Foundation, a nonprofit affiliated with the Republican State Leadership Committee, has used its email list this month to promote the work of at least four such donors: retail giant Amazon, health insurers Centene and Anthem, and drug company Emergent Biosolutions. All four companies contributed to RSLC in the second half of 2019, the latest period for which financial disclosure reports are publicly available. Combined, those companies have given the group more than $2.1 million since 2007—$150,000 of which came in the second half of 2019—according to Internal Revenue Service data compiled by the firm GovPredict.
SGLF describes the email campaign as “a series of spotlights that seeks to highlight positive business advancements in the face of these uncertain times.” The four emails obtained by The Daily Beast largely copied messages—in many cases verbatim—from press releases announcing the four companies’ various efforts to combat the coronavirus.
“Amazon is committed to consumers and the health of its internal teams during the COVID-19 crisis,” reads the one about that company. “To date, Amazon has made over 150 significant process changes to ensure the health and safety of its teams.”
It was a strange message seemingly disconnected from the immediate goals of an arm of Republicans’ state-level campaign apparatus. Ethics experts say the emails come off as transactional efforts to promote large financial benefactors using the official resources of a nonprofit advocacy group.
“It would be one thing if Amazon had paid to rent the SGLF email list,” said Brendan Fischer, the director of federal reforms at the Campaign Legal Center, when shown a copy of that company’s promotion. “But SGLF is actually framing this as a message from SGLF itself, without giving any indication that this is an Amazon press release. It even says ‘Paid for by SGLF’ at the bottom.”
The Amazon email, Fischer added, “doesn't obviously pertain to any SGLF policy or legislative issues. Is there any chance that SGLF would be blasting its email list with corporate press releases if those corporations were not funding SGLF? Probably not.”
An SGLF spokesperson didn’t address those concerns when asked about the “Spotlight” emails. “We’re damn proud of the companies who have stepped up in these uncertain times to help meet the challenges our nation—and states—are facing amidst this crisis,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “Sharing their good work with partners in every corner of the country is the least that we can do. And we’ll keep on doing it—no matter how much it pisses off the liberal media.”
It’s unclear who exactly the emails, each headlined “Spotlight,” were written for—lawmakers, lobbyists, journalists, the general public, or some other group—or whether there were more and different “Spotlight” messages shared by the group.
The group, while technically nonpartisan, is closely affiliated with the RSLC, an explicitly political outfit that works to elect Republicans to state-level positions around the country. RSLC and SGLF share staff and office space, and the latter identifies the former as a “related organization” for tax purposes in its annual filings with the IRS.
SGLF says its mission is “to conduct research and educational programs on public issues for the benefit of the general public, industry, and state government leaders.”
The SGLF is not legally required to disclose its donors, but the RSLC must do so regularly. The group’s Republican Legislative Campaign Committee, the RSLC’s state legislative arm, offers corporate sponsorship packages that can get companies access to lawmakers and the ability to shape the programming of the group’s regular events.
Federal records show donations to the RSLC last year from each of the four companies promoted in the group’s “Spotlight” emails this month. Anthem and Centene have been donors for more than a decade, federal records indicate. Amazon’s first contribution appears to have come in 2017.
Emergent Biosolutions, by contrast, donated to the RSLC for the first time in October. The company said it is a member of the group, but that it has never offered it any sort of official promotion in exchange for financial support. A spokesperson said the company was not aware that its work was being promoted through SGLF’s email campaign.
Emergent job listings indicate that the company is active in state level policy advocacy. One recent listing asked for candidates with “experience at a state-level lobbyist.” Another said that the candidate would be “managing schedule and travel” for an arm of the RSLC as well as its Democratic counterpart. Jill Hamaker, the company’s vice president of federal government affairs, also happens to be a former RSLC program director who, according to her LinkedIn page, “managed over 100,000 donors across all 50 states” for the group.
SGLF’s email promoting Emergent hypes its “decades of experience in developing and manufacturing vaccines” and a new “partnership with Novavax to support bringing their novel experimental vaccine candidate into the clinic to protect against COVID-19.”
The “Spotlight” email about Amazon, meanwhile, touted its recent hiring spree and its efforts to keep its workers safe and prevent any contamination of the products it ships. The language in SGLF’s email largely mirrored that of a press release issued by Amazon this month. The emails promoting Anthem and Centene were also similar to—and occasionally used exact phrases from—press releases from those companies.
The coronavirus crisis has elevated state governments that have largely found themselves forced to deal with day-to-day efforts to try to control the virus’ spread. While the federal government has issued a number of regulations related to the outbreak, many of them, such as which businesses are deemed “essential” and can remain open during stay-at-home orders, are advisory in nature, leaving wide discretion to state governments to deal with the crisis as they see fit.
That places significant influence in the hands of governors and state legislators, especially when it comes to policies that could affect companies involved in responding to the outbreak or its secondary effects on daily life—companies like insurers, pharmaceutical firms, or online retailers.