For Americans seeking a little retail therapy after a stressful election season, help is on the way. But it’s not all about the stampede-inducing sales on Black Friday: Big-box stores and online marketplaces turn some of their profits into political clout through hefty campaign contributions and lobbying.
The companies below use a variety of strategies to steer policy in Washington, but a handful of trends have emerged over the course of the 2016 cycle. Donations to Democrats are up – especially to Hillary Clinton, the top recipient for employees of every company profiled – and lobbying is down, though many of the retailers focused on hotly-contested sales tax legislation when they bore down on Congress.
Wal-Mart and its employees contributed more than $2.4 million over the course of the 2016 cycle through mid-October. Most of that cash – nearly $1.8 million – came from Wal-Mart’s PAC.
Wal-Mart’s political giving lately has shifted toward Democrats. The company’s staff and PAC have always favored the GOP overall, but the share of contributions going to Republican candidates and party committees has declined from a high of 93 percent in 1994 to 55 percent during the 2016 cycle. Additionally, contributions to outside spending groups sit at $44,123 this year, a sharp drop-off from the $330,700 that flowed to outside spenders in 2012.
Clinton was the top recipient of Wal-Mart cash this year, at $97,399, far outstripping the sixth-place Donald Trump. In fact, the only candidate in the top five who did not run for president this year is home-state Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), who collected $39,730.
On the lobbying front, the Arkansas-based giant has spent more than $5 million monitoring and attempting to influence Washington so far this year, putting it on pace to top last year’s total of almost $6.7 million and even 2011’s all-time high of $7.6 million. But the company’s top legislative issues remain the same: taxes, followed by trade and consumer product safety. This year, Wal-Mart honed in on the Remote Transactions Parity Act and Marketplace Fairness Act, two tax measures that would change the way sales taxes are assessed in order to capture revenue from out-of-state and online retailers. That’s a move that brick-and-mortar stores (like Wal-Mart) applaud.
That effort has been led by a bevy of past members of Congress. Former Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.) and Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Don Nickles (R-Okla.) all are registered lobbyists for Wal-Mart, and a whopping 79.4 percent of the company’s 68 lobbyists previously worked in the government.
Target’s political efforts are considerably more modest, with employee and PAC contributions reaching $596,824 during the 2016 cycle. This total reflects the highest level of giving since 2010, but the company’s PAC contributions have declined to $399,000 this year from $446,000 in the 2014 midterms.
For the first time since 1996, however, more cash has gone to Democratic party committees and candidates than Republicans. That shift reflects donations made by employees, as the PAC was relatively even-handed, giving $30,000 donations to both the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and National Republican Senatorial Committee. Clinton received the most cash from Target workers, collecting $42,567.
On the influence side, Target has spent $970,000 on lobbying so far this year, down from a high of $2.85 million in 2010. Like Wal-Mart, Target’s top issue was trade and it, too, focused on the Marketplace Fairness Act and Remote Transactions Parity Act. Of the 14 lobbyists who pushed the company’s agenda in Washington, 10 have previously worked in the government.
Black Friday has ballooned to include not just old brick-and-mortar standbys, like Wal-Mart and Target, but massive online retailers and marketplaces. At the forefront of the Internet sales movement is Amazon, which has parlayed business success into political influence.
Amazon’s employees and PAC have given almost $1.4 million this year, its highest contribution total by a country mile. In 2012, the cycle with the next-largest sums, just $543,060 came from the company’s PAC and staff. What hasn’t changed this year, however, is the partisan breakdown of political cash. The company has never given less than 55 percent of its donations to Democrats, and this cycle, 65 percent of money given to candidates or parties went to Democrats.
Unsurprisingly, Clinton came out on top here, too. Her $328,156 from Amazon’s employees was good for almost a quarter of all company contributions, and topped the amount given to the next-highest recipient, Bernie Sanders, by more than $200,000. Much of the cash also flowed locally from those connected to the Seattle-based corporation: of the eight top-funded candidates, five were Democrats in Washington state.
But Amazon’s real power in D.C. arguably flows from K Street. The company has spent more than $8.6 million on lobbying through the first nine months of 2016, giving it the 20th-highest total in the country.
Amazon has slightly fewer former government officials on its lobbying payroll than some of its competitors, but the company counts several powerful past members of Congress as paid advocates. Former Sens. John Breaux (D-La.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) join former Reps. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.) and Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) as registered lobbyists for Amazon.
Fittingly, the company focused its influence efforts on computers and information technology issues, mostly, though taxes and consumer product safety also ranked highly. Amazon too supported the Remote Transactions Parity Act, which seems odd at first glance, given the company’s status as a paradigmatic online marketplace. However, as described in Forbes, “e-tailers” like Amazon have come to support this measure and ones like for their efforts to clarify and simplify state tax-collection laws.
In this electronically-charged era, retailers like Best Buy have made a mint selling the computers and consoles that dominate the holiday gift-giving season. In truth, Best Buy’s political influence is substantial, but not dominating. The company’s PAC and employees contributed $536,832 this year, however, by far the largest total in the company’s history.
As has become custom since 2000, political cash coming from Best Buy favored the GOP. This year, 51 percent went to Republican parties and candidates, marking a decline in both rate and dollar amount as money to Democrats nearly doubled from the 2014 figure. But Best Buy’s PAC contributions were up in 2016, reaching $422,000.
Clinton was again the top recipient of employee cash, though her lead was smaller at Best Buy than elsewhere, as she racked up$30,426 for her losing campaign. Trump collected just $1,423.
On the other hand, lobbying expenditures are way down for Best Buy in 2016. The company’s $590,000 spent on lobbying this year, though it doesn’t yet include any fourth-quarter efforts, is almost two-and-a-half times smaller than 2015’s total and pales in comparison with the high of just under $2 million spent in 2014. The company’s six registered lobbyists centered their efforts on aviation issues, specifically regulations on personal drones and lithium ion batteries – two components or items that could be popular holiday gifts this year. Like its peers, the tech giant also weighed in on the remote tax overhauls.
Not every department store serves as the setting for a classic Christmas film. Macy’s has been a longtime leader in the retail world, but the company has largely stayed out of politics this year. The company’s employees contributed $126,525 during the 2016 cycle. The PAC itself donated just $1,000, all to Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn.
That has not always been the case. The Macy’s PAC donated $42,000 in 2014 and $36,000 in 2012, but the company’s giving has generally been dominated by employee contributions. Unlike its peers listed above, the company’s employee and PAC money have favored the major parties relatively evenly. From 2000 onward, more political cash has gone to Republican candidates and parties in five elections and Democrats in four. This year, 64 percent of these donations went to the Dems, the highest percentage for either party since 2006.
Clinton led here, too, collecting $43,312 from Macy’s employees, while Sanders took the second-place spot for contributions to candidates at $10,471. What is perhaps more significant, however, is that Macy’s did not report any lobbying activity in 2016. That’s not new, however. Macy’s last lobbied in 1999, when it spent $40,000.