Republicans Can Talk Tough About ‘Woke’ Corporations—and That’s About It
They’re warning about corporations siding against them over Georgia’s new voting restrictions, but the reality is, that’s really all they can do.
“In light of @MLB’s stance to undermine election integrity laws,” Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) tweeted last week, “I have instructed my staff to begin drafting legislation to remove Major League Baseball’s federal antitrust exception.”
Duncan’s proposal stands almost no chance of becoming law, but Republicans have good reason to be concerned—corporate boycotts, like the ones in Georgia now, have worked before. Over the last decade, they’ve helped reverse anti-LGBT laws in North Carolina and Indiana. And just this year, the threat of boycotts could help temper an anti-trans law in South Dakota.
All the while, there’s been only modest blowback for the businesses standing up to politicians.
“Corporations are people, these are your constituents,” said one Republican strategist, invoking an infamous line from now Utah Sen. Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. “You aren’t going to punish successful businesses in your state or congressional district.”
But as the MLB and major employers in Georgia like Delta and Coca-Cola come out against a Georgia law imposing all sorts of restrictions on voting in the state, Republicans are struggling to figure out how they keep businesses in line.
On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) warned of “serious consequences” if the private sector kept “behaving like a woke parallel government.” But he didn’t even have a chance to clarify what those consequences would be before he was walking back his comments.
“I didn’t say that very artfully yesterday,” McConnell said Wednesday. A day after advising businesses to “stay the hell out of politics,” McConnell said corporations were “certainly entitled to be in politics.”
Republicans can talk tough about corporations siding against them, but the reality is, that’s really all they can do. As McConnell demonstrated, even that game is delicate. And while corporations don’t want to alienate half of their consumer base by coming out against a partisan law, Republicans don’t want to ostracize big business.
“In reality, it’s nearly impossible for a prominent lawmaker to be at odds with a major corporation operating in their state or district, simply because those companies employ thousands of their constituents,” said Republican strategist Lauren Zelt.
Politicians shy away from punishing corporations that provide jobs to their voters, Zelt said, leaving them with “very little actual agency” to challenge corporate policies.
“Which is why more companies are choosing to make statements at important junctures in our collective history,” Zelt said.
Businesses are seeing that the greater risk to their bottom lines is saying nothing. Delta (“the final bill is unacceptable”) and Coca-Cola (“disappointed”) only spoke out against the Georgia voting law after consumers pressured them to do so. But the very fact that businesses see inaction as the greater danger speaks to the current climate, where a corporate conscience is a strength and not a liability.
Still, Republicans have had little issue with dismissing public outrage as coming from the “woke mob” and just pressing ahead with their agenda. But they should be careful—in recent history, that attitude has been the one fraught with risk, not the position that corporations ought to speak out against broadly unpopular laws.
In North Carolina, politicians are still feeling the effects of the so-called 2016 “bathroom bill,” which only allowed people to enter restrooms that corresponded with the gender that was listed on their birth certificate.
Sam Spencer—a North Carolina Democratic operative who was the campaign manager for the former mayor of Charlotte, Jennifer Roberts—recalled to The Daily Beast a city meeting in 2015 discussing a similar ordinance, this time to allow transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice. According to Spencer, there were about 150 people in line to speak, and as the 23rd in the queue, he was the first to voice support for the measure.
Spencer said Republicans like then-Gov. Pat McCrory thought the transgender bathroom issue was going to be a political winner for them. But once corporations and sports organizations started coming out against the legislation, pulling business and events from North Carolina, “it very quickly became his Achilles’ heel.”
Businesses like PayPal and Deutsche Bank halted planned expansions in the state. The NBA pulled the 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte. And the NCAA took away seven upcoming tournaments from North Carolina.
But Spencer said the psychological impact for North Carolina was much greater than the economic one, particularly because it thinks of itself as a basketball state, if not the state for college basketball.
In the end, voters didn’t punish the corporations who stood up to the law; they punished the politicians. McCrory became the first incumbent governor to lose an election in North Carolina since 1892, and voters displayed similar dissatisfaction with other Republicans, even voting out some incumbent Democrats just for good measure.
“A lot of Charlotte voters became Mercutio voters,” Spencer said, invoking Shakespeare, “like, ‘A plague on both your houses.’”
In Indiana, the reaction to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was just as severe. As opponents pointed out, the law allowed businesses to deny services to the LGBT community. And after then-Gov. Mike Pence signed RFRA, corporations immediately started coming out against it.
Some major conventions, like Gen Con and one for labor unions, threatened to pull out of the state. The NCAA, which is headquartered in Indianapolis, issued statements about its concerns. And a number of organizations began to #BoycottIndiana, including the band Wilco and four states whose governors said they would no longer allow taxpayer-funded travel to Indiana.
One PR professional in the state who has worked for Indiana Republicans before told The Daily Beast that Pence, who was blindsided by the backlash, tried to push past the outrage. But ultimately, the consequences were too steep.
Just a few months after signing the bill—and after one disastrous interview with George Stephanopoulos—Pence caved. He signed a “fix” bill making it clear that the earlier legislation couldn’t be used to discriminate against LGBT people.
But not all Republican governors have thrown caution to the wind.
Just this year, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has sought a number of changes to a transgender sports bill in her state. Initially, Noem expressed support for the legislation. But after businesses and more than 500 NCAA student-athletes signaled opposition, Noem saw the writing on the wall and refused to sign the measure that landed on her desk. And in Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson vetoed a bill banning gender-affirming surgery for transgender youth. (The Arkansas legislature went ahead and voted to override his veto.)
Veto overrides notwithstanding, the political pressure and the boycotts are working. Corporations are often coming out of these situations looking pretty good, and the politicians aren’t.
Still, in Georgia, the politics may be murkier.
The controversy there is over a partisan voting rights bill, not an anti-LGBT bill, and the reactions aren’t as lopsided.
Another key difference between Georgia and some of these other states is timing. There’s a bit of a buffer now for Republicans in the Peach State. Lawmakers have already left the statehouse and won’t face an election for nearly two years.
As the PR professional in Indiana noted, when Pence signed RFRA, lawmakers there were still in session. The political pressure to change the law was immediate, and Indiana Republicans had to face reporters almost every day and respond to the latest corporate statement.
In Georgia, this source said, “They can just sit there and go, ‘Well, we can’t do anything until next year,’ and just hope it dies.”
And perhaps the biggest difference is that, at this point, it’s not clear whether the law will be a political liability for Republicans in Georgia. For Gov. Brian Kemp, it may actually save him, after he refused to help President Trump overturn election results in his state and angered Trump’s most loyal followers.
The voting law may still ultimately cost Kemp his job in the 2022 election, but it probably helps him survive the GOP primary, even if the former president made clear it still wasn’t going to be enough to win back his support.
"Georgia’s election reform law is far too weak and soft to ensure real ballot integrity," Trump said in a statement on Tuesday. “Boycott all the woke companies that don’t want Voter I.D. and Free and Fair Elections.”