DeSantis, Florida Republicans talk like they’re divorcing big business. Are they?

While it’s becoming increasingly common for Republicans like DeSantis to criticize big business, their campaigns are still heavily funded by them.
A sign on display at the 2022 Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando uses McDonald's golden arches to represent Marxism.
A sign on display at the 2022 Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando uses McDonald's golden arches to represent Marxism. [ Emily L. Mahoney | Times ]
Published March 28, 2022|Updated March 29, 2022

Gov. Ron DeSantis could have been talking about a Democrat or the media.

But his verbal offensive earlier this month was aimed instead at one of the most reliable and generous GOP donors in Florida: Disney.

“How do they possibly explain lining their pockets with their relationship (with) the Communist Party of China?” he told supporters in a video obtained by Fox News Digital. The same day, his campaign sent out a fundraising email lambasting the company: “Disney … has lost any moral authority to tell you what to do.”

DeSantis’ clash with Disney is technically an outgrowth of the company’s concerns over House Bill 1557, called the “Parental Rights in Education” bill and what opponents have dubbed the “don’t say gay” bill.

But the conflict also represents a larger campaign. It’s now common for Republicans like DeSantis to criticize big business or call out individual companies, particularly ones that oppose laws passed by Republican-led legislatures, hold diversity training deemed “woke,” or removed former President Donald Trump and allies from social media platforms.

Yet for all the attention that DeSantis and other Republicans receive for these once unthinkable attacks against big businesses, a Tampa Bay Times review of thousands of campaign contributions shows their 2022 campaigns are still going to be heavily funded by them.

Political committees affiliated with the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Associated Industries of Florida, groups representing the state’s largest corporate interests in Tallahassee, have given at least $2.6 million to DeSantis’ reelection campaign so far. That far outpaces the sums those same committees gave to then-Gov. Rick Scott at the same point of his reelection bid.

As his national profile continues its rise as a potential presidential contender, DeSantis’ needling of some corporations doesn’t appear to have altered their collective giving habits.

In fact, one $25,000 check from the chamber came after DeSantis gave an October speech in front of the group where he slammed “corporate wokeness” and warned some of the state’s most powerful businesses not to veer into political issues, or he “may look under the hood” of their operations.

For now, Disney is an exception after saying it will suspend its Florida political contributions while it reviews its advocacy standards. But before that decision, The Walt Disney Co. and related companies had already donated more than $800,000 to DeSantis, the Republican Party of Florida and committees tied to the Legislature’s Republican leadership since the 2020 election.

Related: Disney pauses Florida political donations amid ‘don’t say gay’ bill clash with DeSantis

Additionally, more than 150 companies, many of them household names, signed a letter from the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ equality advocacy group, that was released in February denouncing “anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in Florida,” including House Bill 1557. But eight of the letter’s signatories — AT&T, Altria, CVS, Amazon, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, American Express and Microsoft — had already donated more than $192,000 combined to the Republican Party of Florida since the 2020 election. AT&T and Pfizer have also donated $80,000 and $5,000, respectively, to DeSantis’ political committee for his reelection.

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None of those companies responded to emails or calls requesting comment.

Backers of DeSantis say he’s willing to spar with the special interests with whom Florida politicians have long enjoyed a cozy relationship. Some also add, privately, that it shows just how popular he is: He can use the bully pulpit against the state’s powerhouses, and top donors still support him.

Brian Ballard, a longtime adviser to Florida’s Republican politicians and whose lobbying firm represents major corporations, said that even with some headline spats, few businesses will abandon a Republican Party that is still fighting for lower taxes and less regulation. Some corporations, he said, have invited backlash by aligning themselves “with what’s cool” on progressive issues, which is unwise for attracting business from conservatives.

“I love Michael Jordan, and I love what he said: ‘Republicans wear sneakers, too,’ ” Ballard said, referencing the Chicago Bulls superstar’s avoidance of political commentary.

It’s not surprising that companies haven’t changed how they donate, said Joshua Scacco, a University of South Florida professor who researches political communication.

Even after many companies pledged to suspend contributions to members of Congress who voted against certifying the 2020 election results, some eventually started giving to those same lawmakers, again. Ford, Pfizer and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce were among the examples cited in a New York Times report that found some companies that froze donations to those lawmakers after the Jan. 6 Capitol attack had resumed within months.

Political contributions by corporations are a business expense typically directed at the officials who hold power — which, in Florida for the past two decades, has been Republicans.

“Businesses are still going to give money to the people in power regardless of what they say about them because that will still guarantee at least some sort of access, even if it’s at a fundraiser,” he said.

Business groups and the state’s top employers, like Disney and Publix, have given much larger sums to the state Republican Party than to the Democratic Party. Some, however, donate to both.

Scacco said that’s a way of ensuring they always have “a seat at the table.”

Still getting their way?

In the legislative session that just concluded, the business lobby — with a few exceptions — still got much of what it wanted from the state’s leading Republicans.

One major victory for businesses was the death of a DeSantis priority bill that would have allowed consumers to sue technology companies over data privacy. Business groups vehemently opposed it.

A different bill that passed will allow businesses to sue local governments if an ordinance hurts their revenue by at least 15 percent. Another, backed by the Florida Retail Federation, will increase the criminal penalties for organized retail theft. A bill phasing out incentives for homeowners with rooftop solar panels, initially written by the state’s largest utility company, also passed.

Critics say it’s proof that tough talk from Republicans isn’t genuine.

“It’s complete theatrics,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, who’s one of the most vocal opponents to corporate tax breaks in the Legislature. “You let the governor punch you around a little bit, but you’ll still get what your actual priority is.”

“So much of what DeSantis does is performative and (large companies) are bit players in the performance,” said Mac Stipanovich, a longtime Tallahassee Republican strategist who recently retired and has vocally opposed the governor. “The Republicans feed them things that really matter to them involving money. … In exchange for that, they are willing to take and receive a certain amount of populist abuse.”

Still, other bills bolster the idea of a growing gap between Republicans and big business.

Last fall, DeSantis called on the Legislature to convene a special session to pass a law allowing workers to sue their employer over vaccine mandates. At the time, some of Florida’s largest companies had started requiring vaccines. Several business groups said the legislation was unnecessary or counterproductive to businesses.

This session, lawsuits were back as Republicans’ enforcement mechanism of choice, this time in bills over culture war issues. As a result of DeSantis’ priority bill regulating racial discussions in the classroom and workplace, employers could be subject to lawsuits.

Changing ideologies

At the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, there were signs that the new tactic toward business is here to stay.

“Why is our liberty so under assault? Because giant corporations, giant tech, giant government, they work together hand-in-hand,” said Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas during his speech. He bashed Spotify, Major League Baseball, and even Levi’s — once a symbol of Western freedom behind the Iron Curtain.

Related: CPAC Orlando message: Conservatives ready to fight for culture against ‘radical left’

Among the speakers at the conference was Sen. Rick Scott, whose political brand during his campaign for governor in 2010 revolved around his laser focus on jobs, business growth and the recovery from the Great Recession.

Asked by a Times reporter about the contrast between his political brand then and the CPAC messaging, Scott said he agrees that many companies are being hypocritical.

“What people have gotten tired of is, there’s woke boardrooms now,” he said. Scott cited Delta Air Lines as an example, whose CEO came out strongly against a more restrictive voting law that Georgia passed last year.

“They want to attack an election law in this country but they’re OK with what China is doing. … If you expect America to be better, you should expect other countries that you do business with to be better.”

A July Gallup poll found that while Democrats have long held negative views of large corporations, 2021 marked an all-time low for Republicans’ attitudes toward them. Gallup found that, since 1973, Republicans tend to have had a positive view toward big business unless the country is experiencing a recession.

“While the poll doesn’t answer why these changes have occurred, the trend spans a year when many corporations became more vocal about racial justice and took public stances in societal debates over voter laws and the Jan. 6 insurrection,” the Gallup report states.

Some Democrats see opportunity.

“Behind closed doors when I speak to (corporate leaders), they’re frustrated with some of the policies coming out of the governor’s office,” said Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who’s running against DeSantis for governor. “I say to them the same thing: ‘Stop giving money, then.’ ”

In statements sent to the Times, however, the leaders of both the chamber and Associated Industries of Florida praised the governor and indicated their firm support.

“While we may occasionally differ on specific policy proposals, we believe Florida is fortunate to have a leader like Gov. DeSantis, who is fully committed to ensuring the state remains open for business,” said Brewster Bevis, president and CEO of Associated Industries.

Mark Wilson, president and CEO of the Florida Chamber, said the group “looks forward to our continued work with Gov. DeSantis to keep Florida Florida, and to keep our momentum going.”