“They want to show up, they want to rub elbows with everyone at the conventions, they just don’t want the corporate name out there.” Share this story:
– Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen
Protestors will shout. Delegates may revolt. Factions will haggle over rules and platform proposals.
But come later this month, no amount of friction will stop corporations, unions and special interests from spending tens of millions of dollars to bankroll nonstop partying at the Democratic and Republican national conventions. Thank federal campaign finance rules that allow unlimited contributions to support them.
Special interests concerned about chaos under their corporate logos shouldn’t fret. There are plenty of ways to show support for the quadrennial bacchanalias and discreetly secure access to lawmakers and political power players without earning unwanted attention.
Certainly some high-profile companies and individual donors — the list includes billionaire Paul Singer, Apple, Coca-Cola, Microsoft and Wal-Mart — are scaling back on giving to the host committees this time.
Some reportedly want to distance themselves from controversies surrounding presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee-in-waiting, is also historically unpopular with the public and attempting to weather fallout from her State Department email imbroglio, in which the FBI this week deemed her conduct “extremely careless,” although not worthy of criminal charges.
Meanwhile, many special interests, from Comcast Corp. to financial giant JPMorgan Chase to insurer Blue Cross Blue Shield, will participate in convention-related activities, but they’ve become more creative in how they influence conventioneers — or are altogether refusing to discuss their convention plans.
“They want to show up, they want to rub elbows with everyone at the conventions, they just don’t want the corporate name out there,” said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for advocacy group Public Citizen, who has long tracked influence efforts at the conventions. “They’ll be looking for lower-key ways of doing the same thing they’ve always done.”
The Center for Public Integrity contacted dozens of companies to inquire about their plans for contributing to the convention host committees or sponsor private events at the collection. The companies include the largest contributors to both 2012 national conventions and the top 10 Fortune 500 companies.
Many didn’t respond to questions, and almost none would provide specific details about their 2016 convention involvement. But through public records and other sources, the Center for Public Integrity identified major sponsorship opportunities and big-time backers.
Sponsor a delegation
One way to keep a lower profile is to sponsor a delegation. The Republican National Convention’s Texas delegation, which offers packages ranging from the $5,000 “Bluebonnet Club” to the $50,000 “Lone Star Club” — something for every budget.
Most packages include a certain number of passes to the convention and official delegation events and the ability to book hotel rooms at the same hotel as the delegation, ensuring easy access.
Public recognition also comes with a sponsorship — but this year, many sponsors don’t want their names associated with supporting the Republican National Convention.
“Part of the package is that they’re recognized, and some of them have chosen not to be recognized publicly,” delegation consultant Beth Cubriel said, adding, “they just want to be supportive of the delegates.”
The sponsorships have been almost entirely snapped up, Cubriel added.
Indeed, there’s more than one way to support the conventions, and many routes are decidedly opaque.
If you’re a special interest that wants to make a splash, you have three main options:
The most direct route is to give a six- or seven-figure contribution straight to the host committees — nonprofit organizations created to organize, host and fund the convention. These contributions will be publicly disclosed — but not until 60 days after the event. Corporations and unions may give money directly to these committees.
A second option, new this year, permits individuals and political committees to write checks directly to special “convention accounts” administered by the Democratic and Republican parties themselves.
Political parties at one time received $18 million each in public funding for their conventions, in addition to money earmarked for security. But Congress eliminated this funding in 2014. To make it up, lawmakers created special “convention” accounts for each political party, allowing individuals to contribute $100,200 and political action committees to kick in $45,000. That’s in addition to other contributions to the party.
Corporations and unions may not give directly to these accounts, although political action committees they sponsor may do so.
Republicans have so far raised roughly triple the amount of Democrats — more than $15 million so far this cycle through the end of May, compared to approximately $5 million. Those contributions are disclosed monthly.
The DNC declined to comment on the new convention fundraising accounts. In a statement, the RNC said the money they raise “will be used to defray the costs of putting on a national convention.”
The third option: throw a private party for lawmakers and partisan bigwigs. Such affairs might fly under the radar — great for many attention-avoiding special interests in 2016 — but they require all involved to follow a convoluted bunch of federal ethics rules.
Approaches among influence peddlers vary.
A host of Republican officeholders and eminences have announced they’ll be skipping the Cleveland event this year, contributing to questions about whether large investments are worth it — especially since most companies like to support both conventions to the same degree.
Kevin O’Neill, co-chair of the legislative practice group at law and lobbying firm Arnold & Porter, said clients have always gone through a process to evaluate the value of participating, and it’s been declining.
Now, O’Neill said, lobbying firm clients are concluding, “If we’re going we should have a smaller footprint, a smaller visibility, it should be very targeted, and we should do anything we can to steer our brand clear of controversy. You have two candidates here that have some high negatives, and that gives people pause.”
Wal-Mart spokesman Greg Hitt said the company’s political action committee is contributing $15,000 to the convention fund for each party this election cycle, and won’t be giving additional money to the host committees. Compare that to the $150,000 corporate contribution Wal-Mart gave to the host committee for the Republican convention in 2012.
Singer, a major Republican donor, has also contributed to the party convention account, giving the maximum $100,200 last year. Microsoft’s PAC gave $15,000 to the DNC convention account.
Some companies that have contributed heavily in the past, such as FedEx, which gave $250,000 to the Republican convention in 2012, did not respond to multiple inquiries about their plans this year.
Such circumstances don’t make soliciting large donations any easier. But representatives of both parties’ host committees say they’re nevertheless closing in on their fundraising goals, which are $50 million for the Democratic host committee and $57 million for the Republicans.
Representatives of both host committees acknowledge they’re relying heavily on big corporations anchored in their host cities, which is typical.
The strong regional appeal of conventions also means many big contributors from four years ago — companies headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Tampa, Florida, for instance — aren’t necessarily in the mix this time.
Local funds pour in
By the time the Republican National Committee decided to award the convention to Cleveland, “we had nearly $30 million in commitments and the vast majority were from northeast Ohio or other parts of Ohio,” said David Gilbert, president and chief executive officer of the Cleveland 2016 Host Committee.