Wal-Mart Sends Mixed Political Signals

by Nathan L. Gonzales August 6, 2008 · 12:05 AM EDT

If indeed Wal-Mart is mobilizing its employees to vote against Democrats, it’s sending a mixed message with its political action committee donations.

Wal-Mart is on pace to give more money to House Democrats this cycle than House Republicans for the first time ever. And as Wal-Mart’s contributions reach further and deeper into the Democratic Caucus, it’s becoming more difficult for the company’s critics to demonize the corporate giant.

Through June 30, 54 percent of contributions to House candidates delivered by Wal-Mart Stores Inc. PAC for Responsible Government this cycle have gone to Democrats. Last cycle, Wal-Mart contributed 67 percent of its House candidate money to Republicans. And in 2004, Republicans received 80 percent of the contributions.

“Wal-Mart has been behaving like a lot of companies since Democrats gained the majorities,” Center for Responsive Politics Communications Director Massie Ritsch said.

But Wal-Mart isn’t just another company; it’s America’s largest corporation.

Wal-Mart’s PAC was moderately active during the 1998 and 2000 election cycles — dishing out $894,000 over four years — but ramped up its political giving in 2002, according to the Center for Responsive Politics Web site. The corporation gave $1.4 million that cycle, and boosted its contributions to more than $2.7 million in both the 2004 and 2006 cycles.

In an age where taking money is synonymous with doing someone’s bidding, more and more Democrats, including party leadership, are cashing Wal-Mart’s PAC checks. Apparently Wal-Mart is not the devil it once was.

Through June, Wal-Mart’s PAC had contributed to 86 House Democrats this cycle, amounting to just more than one-third of the Caucus. That’s more than the 77 House Democrats Wal-Mart supported in 2006 and the 62 that received PAC money in 2004.

Since 2004, Wal-Mart has given $27,500 to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.), $22,500 to House Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.), $12,000 to Chief Deputy Whip Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), and $20,500 to House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (N.Y.).

If Friday’s story in the Wall Street Journal — which claimed that Wal-Mart human resources managers were warning employees that an Obama White House would lead to unionization and ultimately hurt them and the company — gains traction, then it could impact how future Wal-Mart political contributions are received.

“Democrats who have received Wal-Mart money should strongly consider giving it back,” Change to Win Executive Director Chris Chafe said. “Because at its work site, Wal-Mart is telling its employees to vote against Democrats and working families and that’s not something the Democratic Party should be affiliated with.”

“We aren’t done yet,” Wal-Mart Regional Media Director E.R. Anderson explained. “Decisions are still being made as we seek to partner with Members and candidates who are interested in solutions on health care, economic opportunity and the environment.”

Ironically, many of those Members also oppose the company on some important legislation, specifically the Employee Free Choice Act.

“EFCA is a really bad bill,” Anderson said. “But there are so many important issues. We can’t limit our outreach or relationship building.”

If Wal-Mart maintains its giving pace from the past two cycles, it still has approximately $800,000 to dole out, but the contributions would have to be overwhelmingly Republican to bring the PAC back to its traditional pattern.

Fifty-two percent of Wal-Mart’s total candidate giving this cycle has gone to Republican candidates, because the Senate giving is still heavily Republican. It’s still a marked change from 2006, when it was 68 percent Republican and 2004 and 2002 when Republicans received 78 percent of Wal-Mart’s candidate contributions.

“The contributions reflect Wal-Mart scrambling to keep up with the political reality of the day,” said Meghan Scott, a spokeswoman for a group called Wake Up Wal-Mart. Backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers, Wake Up Wal-Mart is one of two high-profile groups organized in 2005 to force Wal-Mart to change its business practices.

Through a well-orchestrated public relations campaign and political partnerships, Wal-Mart is trying to blur the partisan lines.

In recent months, Wal-Mart has touted its $4 price tag for certain prescription drugs and efforts to become more environmentally friendly (including becoming the largest seller of more efficient light bulbs). The company also unveiled a new, softer logo earlier this summer, after 16 years of the old one.

In February 2007, Wal-Mart Chief Executive Officer H. Lee Scott Jr. and Service Employees International Union President Andrew Stern jointly called for universal health care coverage by 2012. Even though they disagree on the details, the moment was symbolic.

“As the company makes changes, it becomes harder to be critical,” Wal-Mart Watch Executive Director David Nassar told the New York Times in June. “Because our critique has to become more nuanced.”

During the Democratic presidential primary, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) attacked Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) during a debate for previously serving on Wal-Mart’s board. Then in June, Obama hired a known Wal-Mart defender, Jason Furman, to be his economic policy director despite plenty of criticism from labor unions. The anti-Wal-Mart attack line also seems to have fallen by the wayside as Obama tries to appeal to red-state voters, many of whom consider Wal-Mart to be a part of their everyday lives.

In analyzing Wal-Mart’s contributions, a couple of distinct Democratic groups stand out.

Wal-Mart has a formal relationship with the Congressional Black Caucus, including the Strive for Excellence Scholarship Program and Emerging Leaders internship program, and has a history of hiring high- profile African-American lobbyists.

In 2004, Wal-Mart’s PAC contributed $69,500 to the CBC, its members and its members’ PACs. Two years later, the PAC’s total CBC contributions reached $108,050. This cycle, it’s already reached $100,500, with more money left to be handed out.

The Blue Dogs PAC, its members and their PACs have cashed $203,500 worth of Wal-Mart PAC checks this cycle, exceeding their 2006 total ($185,000) with four months left. Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus have received $64,500 in Wal-Mart money this cycle, matching their 2006 take.

In a few cases, it is clear that Wal-Mart values incumbency rather than a political party. For example, in Texas’ 23rd district, Wal-Mart gave then-Rep. Henry Bonilla (R) contributions in 2004 ($7,500) and 2006 ($15,000), but this cycle gave $10,000 to the man who defeated him, Democratic Rep. Ciro Rodriguez.

In Florida’s 22nd district, then-Rep. Clay Shaw (R) received Wal-Mart PAC money in 2004 ($5,000) and 2006 ($10,000), but the company gave $10,000 this cycle to Rep. Ron Klein (D), who defeated Wal-Mart’s candidate in 2006. Similar giving patterns can be seen in Pennsylvania’s 4th district, Indiana’s 2nd, Georgia’s 12th, North Carolina’s 11th and Indiana’s 9th.

In New York’s 24th district, Wal-Mart’s PAC contributed $5,000 for then-Rep. Sherwood Boehlert’s 2004 re-election and $10,000 to Ray Meier, the Republican who ran unsuccessfully to replace him in 2006. But this cycle, Wal-Mart has maxed out ($10,000) to Rep. Michael Arcuri (D), whom it once opposed.

Wal-Mart’s Senate spending is traditionally smaller, and very Republican. Since 1998, Wal-Mart has contributed at least 69 percent of its Senate money to Republicans. That trend continues this cycle with Republicans receiving 83 percent of the PAC’s Senate candidate contributions through June 30. But even still, more than a third of the current Democratic Senators have taken money from Wal-Mart over the last three cycles.

Similar to the House races, Wal-Mart appeared to be hedging its bets in a few states. In 2004, Wal-Mart contributed $6,000 to then-incumbent Sen. Tom Daschle (D) and $4,500 to former Rep. John Thune (R) in their South Dakota battle. Wal-Mart also contributed to both the Republican and Democratic Senate candidates in Colorado, Georgia and Louisiana that cycle. In the Tennessee open seat race in 2006, Wal-Mart gave $10,000 each to Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D) and former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker (R).

Wal-Mart is still a Republican company at the grass roots. When contributions from individual employees and their families are added to the PAC contributions, Wal-Mart’s total giving this cycle shifts to about 56 percent Republican, according to CRP. Less than 1 percent of the contributions to Wal-Mart’s PAC comes from donations over $200. In comparison, 4.5 percent of Target’s PAC (Target Citizens Political Forum) money and 74 percent of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. PAC receipts come from donations over $200.

Wal-Mart has also consistently given to all three Republican campaign committees over the last three cycles, including $30,000 each to the National Republican Congressional Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, as well as $15,000 to the Republican National Committee.

In 2004, Wal-Mart gave $30,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. It has never contributed to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, but it did give $2,500 last cycle to then-DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel’s (Ill.) PAC.

“We look forward to working with the committees — both parties, both houses — and we will continue to work with elected officials, regardless of party affiliation, to bring about solutions for all Americans,” Wal-Mart’s Anderson said.