WASHINGTON – Chief executive officers at 13 of Minnesota’s 25 largest publicly traded companies have made personal donations to candidates running in Minnesota’s upcoming U.S. Senate and House races, Federal Election Commission records and data culled by the Center for Responsive Politics show.
The willingness of many of the state’s major corporate CEOs to associate themselves with individual candidates comes at a time when the nation’s hyperpartisan divide could potentially hurt their businesses, said Brian Richter, a University of Texas business professor who has researched political contributions of corporate CEOs.
“Certainly there’s a risk if your name appears [linked to a candidate] and your customers don’t like it,” said Richter. The stakes can be higher for leaders of publicly traded companies, where personal political donations can conceivably imperil shareholder investments.
“Given the increase in polarization [in the U.S.], the risk has gone up for consumer-facing firms,” Richter said. “We live in a faster information environment than we used to.”
Aggrieved consumers can organize boycotts, which happened to Target in 2010, when the company gave to an organization that supported Republican Tom Emmer for governor and Emmer backed efforts to ban same-sex marriage. While that donation was made by the company, a personal endorsement by a CEO in the form of a campaign donation can also invite the same backlash.
“A lot of firms don’t want to be identified as Republican or Democrat,” Richter explained. “Because you’re a CEO doesn’t mean you can’t be a person, [but] the risks are higher if your personal donations are interpreted as the corporation’s view because you are the face of the company.”
Among Minnesota CEOs, Polaris Industries’ Scott Wine has made personal donations to the campaigns of six Republican candidates and one Democrat in Minnesota’s U.S. House and Senate races.
In contrast, Target CEO Brian Cornell has given personally to no national candidates.
Both men declined to comment.
Federal campaign-finance data show that it is not just leaders of big corporations who have invested in the 2017-2018 election cycle. Personal contributions from dozens of CEOs of Minnesota companies of all sizes are helping finance both candidates in the state’s embattled Third Congressional District, where incumbent Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen faces a major challenge from Democrat Dean Phillips.
These donations run against the grain of usually cautious corporate strategies designed to keep businesses politically neutral, Hamline University political scientist David Schultz noted. The need to maintain a low political profile is why CEOs often limit personal political donations to their company’s political action committees (PACs) and not to politicians.
In America’s current atmosphere of divisiveness, business leaders “run increasing risk” by endorsing specific politicians with individual contributions, Schultz said. In addition to the country’s growing partisan split, there can be “generational issues.” Younger voters, so-called millennials, tend to look harder than older voters at the philosophies of the businesses they frequent, Schultz said.
Stanley Hubbard, the politically active patriarch of Minnesota-based Hubbard Broadcasting, offered an unabashed counterpoint.
“Our business is totally down the middle,” said Hubbard, whose company is not publicly traded and who has personally donated the legal maximum of $5,400 to six Republican candidates, $2,700 to a seventh and $1,900 to one Democratic candidate in Minnesota’s current U.S. House and Senate races. “I’d just as soon not have my name attached to the donations, but that’s the law.”
Regardless of personal or professional exposure, Hubbard said, business leaders with opinions “ought to put their money where their mouth is.”
Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly ranked 52nd nationally in a recent MarketWatch survey of S&P 500 CEOs’ personal donations to candidates and political committees across the country. Other Minnesota CEOs of note included Ecolab’s Douglas Baker Jr. at 77th, General Mills’ Jeffrey Harmening at 118th, and Xcel Energy’s Benjamin Fowke at 131st.
In Minnesota, Joly’s personal money went to Democratic Sen. Tina Smith, who is seeking election to a seat to which Gov. Mark Dayton appointed her after sexual harassment allegations led Al Franken to resign. Joly also gave to Republicans Paulsen and Emmer, who is now a member of the U.S. House. Like Target, Best Buy ran into trouble with customers in 2010 for company donations to an organization that supported Emmer for governor despite his views against same-sex marriage. Joly was not CEO at the time.
In a statement to the Star Tribune, Joly put a distinctly nonpartisan spin on his 2017-18 election cycle donations.
“The Best Buy PAC [political action committee], and my personal giving, are focused on supporting candidates who have an interest in the issues that may impact our business, our employees and our communities,” Joly said. “We support candidates, regardless of political affiliation, that are committed to playing a constructive role in developing sound public policy.”
At 3M, CEO Michael Roman’s only personal donation in Minnesota’s 2018 federal elections was to incumbent Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar. In a statement, Roman said that as a chief executive he was willing to “support thoughtful leaders who understand business, are willing to collaborate to solve problems, and support values that are important to my company, my family and my community.”
At Polaris Industries, Wine, whose company is not in the S&P 500, currently leads all Minnesota CEOs in personal donations to the state’s U.S. Senate and House races. He had given $32,400 in personal contributions to six Republicans and one Democrat as of Oct. 20.
The number may go up as campaigns file records for more recent contributions.
Some corporate CEO giving is predictable, according to Sheila Krumholz, the Minnesotan who directs the Center for Responsive Politics, one of the country’s top aggregators of campaign finance data. Personal donations “may be driven by many things,” Krumholz said. “But typically, they don’t run counter to the company’s PAC strategy. They give mostly to incumbents and people who can help the company now.”
Campaign donations, while limited by law, signal support that often gains businesses access to elected officials or their staffs to discuss critical issues. Politicians with the most power get the most attention from corporate donors. In Minnesota, Republican Paulsen, who sits on the financially powerful House Ways and Means Committee, and Klobuchar, who enjoys significant bipartisan approval ratings, have attracted the most personal donations from the CEOs of Minnesota’s largest corporations.
Among his campaign donations, Paulsen lists contributions from chief executives from nine of the state’s 25 largest companies — Ecolab, Securian, Polaris Industries, Thrivent Financial, Land O’Lakes, Pentair, Medtronic, Xcel Energy and General Mills.
Chief executives at 11 of the state’s 25 largest companies, including 3M, C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Ecolab, General Mills, Land O’Lakes, Polaris Industries, Securian, U.S. Bank, Excel Energy, Pentair and Medtronic have given to Klobuchar.
Wine and Hubbard, who have donated almost exclusively to Republicans, made Klobuchar their single Democratic exception.
Klobuchar “does a good job,” Hubbard explained.
While donating to Klobuchar, Hubbard made a maximum personal donation to Karin Housley, the Republican Senate candidate running against Smith for Minnesota’s other Senate seat. Housley, currently a state senator, enjoys support from dozens of other Minnesota CEO’s, including Fortune 500 executives Wine and Christopher Hilger of Securian.
Phillips, Paulsen’s challenger in a congressional district that voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and Hillary Clinton in 2016, has relied on donations from dozens of Minnesota CEOs to largely keep pace with Paulsen’s chief executive contributions. Phillips’ ability to nearly match Paulsen’s take from CEOs could be an indication of a pragmatic decision by some executives, said Hamline’s Schultz. The closeness of the race and national predictions that Democrats will reclaim the House majority by winning in suburban districts like the Minnesota Third could have people “hedging their bets.”
The same could be true in the case of Housley, he added, where Republican control of the Senate is more likely and Smith “doesn’t have much incumbency.” Meanwhile, most analysts think the risk of personally backing the loser in a Senate or House race may not cost CEOs the audiences they seek on specific issues. CEOs have more to fear from “consumer blowback and boycotts” over campaign contributions than from a lack of access to election winners, said Krumholz.
As Schultz explained, no matter which candidates win, they cannot ignore the biggest companies in their states.