As the Minnesota primary for governor draws to a close Tuesday, the controversy over corporate-backed political ads for Republican candidate Tom Emmer is far from over.
Target Corp. has come under withering criticism from progressives for its support of Emmer, a social conservative who backs a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. To extricate itself from the public relations nightmare, sources said, Target is negotiating with the Human Rights Campaign to close the book on its clumsy foray into partisan politics.
According to sources close to the talks, Target is being urged to match the $150,000 it gave to finance pro-Emmer ads through the pro-business group MN Forward with another set of donations to pro-gay-rights candidates and groups in Minnesota. Gay rights supporters also are pressing for a national charitable donation.
And Best Buy, which chipped in $100,000 to air the pro-Emmer ads but avoided criticism because of the timing of its campaign disclosure reports, could soon find itself in the center of the storm as well.
“The great irony to all of this is, both of these companies have been stellar performers on our Corporate Responsibility Index,” said Fred Sainz, HRC’s vice president for communications. The index is based on corporate commitment to workplace diversity and inclusion.
The behind-the-scenes negotiations come as MoveOn.org, which organized a petition drive and boycott against Target because of the ads, released new polling data Tuesday that show the majority of voters — Republicans and Democrats alike — agreed with the statement “Corporate election spending is an attempt to bribe politicians.”
Democrats embraced that thinking 88 percent to 8 percent; 70 percent of Republicans agreed with the bribery argument, compared with 25 percent who viewed such spending as a “form of free speech.”
The poll also found that most voters — including 52 percent of Republicans — disagreed with the Supreme Court decision that paved the way for the Target controversy, Federal Election Commission v. Citizens United, which overturned a ban on using corporate cash to finance political ads.
The ruling prompted the founders of MN Forward, which has endorsed both Democrats and Republicans this year, to solicit donations from local businesses to help Emmer, who has been the subject of independent attack ads by progressives and the Democratic Governors Association for his positions on gay marriage and abortion.
Emmer is expected to cruise through Tuesday’s Republican primary and become the party’s nominee for governor. The Democratic race has been more competitive, but the favorite is former Sen. Mark Dayton, who has pledged to close the state’s multibillion-dollar deficit by boosting taxes on the wealthy.
The MN Forward ad aims to contrast Emmer’s economic policies with those of his potential Democratic rivals. While in the state Legislature, the narrator says, Emmer voted against “job-killing taxes.”
In its first attempt to quell the controversy, Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel issued a letter to employees, many of whom expressed outrage at the company’s foray into politics, saying Target didn’t put its weight behind Emmer because of his stance on social issues.
“The intent of our political contribution to MN Forward was to support economic growth and job creation,” Steinhafel said. “While I firmly believe that a business climate conducive to growth is critical to our future, I realize our decision affected many of you in a way I did not anticipate, and for that I am genuinely sorry.”
Steinhafel announced a review of the process used by Target to determine its political activity, and he promised that the company will take a leading role in the fall in promoting the importance of workplace inclusion.
“The diversity of our team is an important aspect of our unique culture and our success as a company, and we did not mean to disappoint you, our team or our valued guests,” he added.
But progressives are pressing the firm to take stronger action.
“We’ve seen unprecedented outrage and concern at Target on the part of our members. We have a commitment to keep up the pressure until they promise never to do it again,” said Ilyse Hogue, MoveOn’s director of public advocacy.
In addition to Target and Best Buy, the ads were financed with donations from Polaris, Hubbard Broadcasting and Davisco Foods International.