Will Florida Republicans face corporate blowback for election conspiracies?

Companies like AT&T and General Motors made donations after Ron DeSantis and Joe Gruters helped amplify Trump’s quest to overturn the election.
Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington.
Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington. [ JULIO CORTEZ | AP ]
Published Feb. 2, 2021

After the deadly riot in the U.S. Capitol, AT&T was one of the first companies to pause future campaign contributions to members of Congress who voted against certifying Joe Biden’s electoral victory.

The telecom giant took a different approach with Gov. Ron DeSantis. Weeks after the Florida Republican urged millions of Fox News viewers to pressure their lawmakers to change the election results in states Donald Trump lost, AT&T sent DeSantis’ political committee $30,000.

General Motors went a step further than AT&T. It paused all political donations after the violent insurrection. In explaining the move, the automaker assured the public that it, prior to the attack, had already “enhanced the character and public integrity criteria for making contributions” in 2020.

Those standards, however, didn’t prevent General Motors from sending $15,000 to the Republican Party of Florida days after its chairman, state Sen. Joe Gruters, amplified calls to interfere with the election by tweeting “#StoptheSteal.” The battle cry, based on unfounded conspiracies of election fraud, was chanted later on the steps of the Capitol as the doors were breached.

For America’s corporate boardrooms, the Jan. 6 attack on Congress was a tipping point, and dozens of major businesses halted future donations as they reassessed how they will fund campaigns. But it’s so far unclear if this hiatus applies to political giving in Florida, where Republicans took a lead role in pushing the false narrative that the election was stolen.

A widespread freeze on state-level donations would significantly drain the financing of campaigns in Florida, a sprawling, multicultural battleground where expensive television advertisements remain the favored method to reach millions of voters. Companies that have announced some action since the Jan. 6 riot have funneled $79 million toward Florida campaigns, candidates and causes over the past decade, a Tampa Bay Times analysis found.

So far, these corporations are non-committal about extending their blockade to Republicans like DeSantis, Gruters or Ashley Moody, Florida’s attorney general. Moody joined 16 of her Republican counterparts in urging the U.S. Supreme Court to consider a Texas lawsuit that would have thrown out the election results in four critical swing states that Biden won.

Duke Energy, one of the state’s most prominent political players with more $12.9 million in donations since 2010, said in a statement it was “shocked and dismayed” by the events at the Capitol and announced a 30-day pause on future contributions. However, company spokesman Philip Sgro confirmed that moratorium applies to federal candidates — not state campaigns.

Duke has donated $837,000 to the Republican Party of Florida and $75,000 to DeSantis since January 2019.

General Motors did not respond to a request for comment, but it was not alone in sending the state GOP thousands of dollars after Gruters and many other Florida Republicans helped spread Trump’s baseless conspiracies of election rigging. Microsoft donated $5,000 on Dec. 11. Comcast sent $45,000 over five days in late November.

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Both companies have since announced they would review their process for choosing which candidates to support. Microsoft has halted all contributions during that review, according to a corporate statement. Comcast didn’t clarify if state-level campaigns in Florida will be affected.

Gruters said he has not heard from representatives of any companies about future contributions to the party. But he said the first quarter after an election is typically slow anyway.

“If people want to take a break, that’s fine,” Gruters said.

Gruters’ #StoptheSteal tweet was later deleted. When asked why, Gruters said he didn’t know.

“Was my tweet deleted?” Gruters said. “I’ve got to go check it out. I try to keep everything on there because there’s no sense trying to hide.”

Of the companies who announced action in response to the riot, some singled out the members of Congress who voted against certification of the election results hours after Trump’s supporters took siege of the Capitol. That includes 13 members of Florida’s delegation, including top Trump ally Rep. Matt Gaetz and Tampa Bay Reps. Scott Franklin of Lakeland and Greg Steube of Sarasota, and Sen. Rick Scott.

In Florida, the most prominent corporation to take a stance against those Republicans was Walt Disney Company. In a statement reported by Bloomberg News, the company called the siege “appalling” and chastised members of congress who “had an opportunity to unite — an opportunity that some sadly refused to embrace.”

The company declined to respond to multiple requests for comment on whether it was also reconsidering donations to its home state candidates. The theme park and entertainment king has flooded Sunshine State politics with $46 million during the past 10 years.

Of the companies contacted by the Times, only AT&T said it would rethink donations to Florida officials in state races.

“The employees who serve on our (political action) committee will weigh federal and state candidates’ positions, votes cast and actions taken relative to the Electoral College certification when making decisions about future PAC support,” the company said.

Scott now heads the Republican Party’s Senate campaign arm and is tasked with leading the GOP’s effort to win back the upper chamber in 2022. There was immediate speculation that Scott’s vote against certifying Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania could hamper Republican fundraising going into the mid-term elections. But his spokesman Chris Hartline said it “hasn’t really been an issue.”

“We’ve told donors he’s willing to talk to anyone about his decision,” Hartline said.

During the 2010s when he was governor, Scott’s political committee received $917,500 from companies now second-guessing their political involvement — more than any other Florida politician.

DeSantis, by comparison, has raised $161,000 from the same roster of companies, though he stopped accepting donations for much of 2020 after the coronavirus landed in Florida. He has also focused more of his attention on raising money for the state party and Trump’s campaign. That is likely to change in the coming months as his reelection fight in 2022 draws near, Republican Party of Florida spokeswoman Alia Faraj-Johnson said.

“As we enter a new election cycle, Gov. DeSantis has renewed his fundraising efforts which stopped last year because the governor wanted to focus on the state’s COVID response,” she said.

She declined to say if DeSantis has heard from any corporate donors since the attack on the Capitol.

Some companies have not taken corporate stances on political giving since the riots. Lakeland-based grocery chain Publix, for example, donated $100,000 to DeSantis in December. The private company previously had donated $50,000 to Scott’s political committee and more recently contributed $3,000 to his Senate campaign. The company did not respond to multiple requests for comment on whether it will alter its policies.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that one heiress to the Publix fortune, Julia Jenkins Fancelli, donated $300,000 to help finance the Jan. 6 rally in Washington, D.C. that preceded and inspired the Capitol insurrection.

Related: Report: Publix heiress paid for Trump rally preceding Capitol riots

Both of Florida’s main political parties have benefited from corporate largesse during the past decade. The state GOP received $15.5 million over that stretch while the Florida Democratic Party’s haul totaled $6 million.

Democrats have cheered on corporations that have distanced themselves from the Republican Party. Manny Diaz, the chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, said in a statement it was “absolutely the right choice,” and he called on more corporations to “follow suit and also stop donating to members of the GOP who tried to threaten our democracy and reject the will of the American people for political purposes.”

Yet Diaz, through a spokeswoman, declined to say whether the state party hoped to convert those corporations into Democratic donors that can help defeat the Republicans who sided with Trump in subverting the election.

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat, said she hoped the party wouldn’t open its arms to Florida companies that might be looking for new avenues to influence state government.

“It’s sad it took an insurrection for them to act, but there should be no corporate giving in politics whatsoever,” Eskamani said. “Anyone who who tells me corporate money doesn’t influence politics, they’re lying. Otherwise why would they be making these investments?”

Times staff writer Langston Taylor contributed to this report.