Company executives often steer clear of any appearance of partisanship, in large part because they don’t want to alienate customers and investors who back the other side.
About 100 CEOs whose companies are components of the S&P 500 have been willing to fly a markedly Democratic or Republican flag in their political giving as individuals during the current election cycle, however.
MarketWatch gathered data on political contributions by those chief executives between Jan. 1, 2017, and Aug. 31, 2018, and has compiled a searchable database that shows the total money spent and the partisan breakdown, listing every contribution made by a CEO and reported to the Federal Election Commission (scroll to the bottom of this article to search the database). Anyone who held the CEO job at any S&P 500
component company in the 2017-18 period is included.
We then screened the data looking for outliers — what we’ve called “partisan spenders.”
To be sure, plenty of CEOs contributed to nonpartisan groups — No. 1 on the list being Amazon.com Inc.
boss Jeff Bezos, due to his $10 million donation to With Honor Fund, a nonpartisan group that aims to help military veterans get elected to Congress.
Yet MarketWatch’s analysis found that among the CEOs who did contribute to party-affiliated committees, nearly all of leaned heavily blue or red, with few donating equally to the two main parties. More than 84% of the 261 CEOs who contributed to partisan committees donated 70% or more of their money to one party or the other. And about 100 of the CEOs spent above the median amount and contributed 75% of their money to one party.
CEOs’ willingness to go political with their own money could be key to understanding how companies choose to influence elections. Much of the research on corporate America’s campaign contributions has focused on spending by company PACs, the political action committees that pool money from an enterprise’s employees. But a 2016 Stanford study found that “corporate elites” — comprising CEOs and board members — donate money with different goals.
Whereas company PACs mostly spread their money far and wide, ostensibly in an effort to gain clout on both sides of the aisle, the study found that corporate elites tend to donate based on ideology.
In the 2018 election cycle, two Silicon Valley bosses — Netflix Inc.’s
Reed Hastings and Salesforce.com Inc.
co-CEO Marc Benioff — stand out for contributing only to individual Democratic candidates’ committees or groups tied to the Democratic Party, as shown in our chart, which is based on itemized filings with the Federal Election Commission. Hastings donated $571,600, making him the biggest spender among partisan outliers who favor Democrats, while Benioff gave $188,900. The chart shows the CEOs who were both the most partisan in their outlays and contributed the most money overall (more than $90,000 in partisan donations). Netflix and Salesforce declined to comment.
“A lot of the immigration concerns that tech companies have are going to push them in the direction of supporting Democrats,” said Sarah Bryner, research director for the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign-finance watchdog. “They’re worried about their employee base.” Tech companies, which often employ highly skilled newcomers to the U.S., have voiced opposition to the GOP’s efforts to restrict immigration.
Plus, many tech companies
are based in blue states, though the sector’s political activity isn’t as Democratic-leaning as in years past, Bryner added. The MarketWatch chart shows that some tech execs favor the GOP. For example, Silicon Valley heavyweight Oracle Corp.’s
two co-CEOs, Safra Catz and Mark Hurd, register as partisan outliers in MarketWatch’s analysis for their support of Republicans. Catz gave $154,700 to GOP groups and just $5,400 to Democratic organizations, while Hurd contributed $94,000, solely to Republican committees. Oracle declined to comment.
“It does not surprise me that you would have some of the newer tech being Democratic, because they’re going to be socially and culturally liberal,” said Bruce Freed, president of the Center for Political Accountability, a nonprofit that pushes for better disclosure of corporate political activity. But he also noted a leftward lean is relatively unusual among CEOs of S&P 500 companies.
“Culturally, most of the top brass are Republicans,” Freed said. “It’s the exception to the rule to have a Democrat as the CEO. A Democrat stands out.”
That appears to be borne out by aggregate figures during this election cycle. The chief executives contributed a total of $7.4 million to Republican groups, almost triple the $2.6 million contributed to Democratic committees.
The sizable partisan giving by Netflix’s Hastings is striking when compared with how other FAANG CEOs are donating. Amazon‘s Bezos contributed more — $10.2 million — but the bulk of that was the $10 million gift to the nonpartisan, veterans-focused fund. Facebook Inc.’s
Mark Zuckerberg, Apple Inc.’s
Tim Cook and Google parent Alphabet Inc.’s
Larry Page have reported donations of $10,000 or less.
Energy for Republicans
A couple of the energy sector’s
bosses stick out in particular for their giving to only Republican candidates and committees, as shown in the chart. They were Hess Corp.’s
John Hess and John Watson, who was Chevron Corp.’s
chief until Feb. 1. Hess — whose political outlays are topped by just one other S&P 500 CEO, Amazon’s Bezos — gave nearly $900,000, while Watson shelled out $94,200.
Oil and oil-related companies have a recognized affinity with the GOP, which has basically “captured” that industry, said Bryner from the Center for Responsive Politics. The Center for Political Accountability’s Freed emphasized that energy companies are generally traditional, conservative and in favor of deregulation. Hess and Chevron didn’t respond to requests for comments.
After Hess, the biggest donor to Republican committees was Steve Wynn, who stepped down as CEO of Wynn Resorts Ltd.
in early 2018 after being accused of sexual misconduct. Wynn resigned as finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, as well.
Dish’s Ergen hedges his bets
The filings collected by MarketWatch also show some CEOs spending heavily on both parties. Dish Network Corp.’s
Charlie Ergen tops all of his fellow corporate honchos when it comes to giving to individual Republican candidates’ committees, with about $43,000 donated, and he’s also the biggest donor to individual Democratic candidates’ committees, contributing about $51,000.
The Colorado-based company’s boss is contributing to lawmakers in his state, as well as to politicians with some jurisdiction over Dish, noted Freed. For example, Ergen has given to Sen. Deb Fischer, a Nebraska Republican who sits on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, while also donating to Democratic senators on that committee such as Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar. Dish declined to comment.
2017 giving came as GOP revamped corporate taxes
Notably, contributions to Republican committees were much higher last year ($4.7 million) — as a GOP-led Congress pushed through a big tax break for corporations — than so far in 2018 ($2.7 million). President Trump signed the Republican tax overhaul into law in December 2017.
Money sent to the Democrats was slightly lower in 2017 ($1.2 million) as compared with 2018 ($1.5 billion).
Note on methodology: MarketWatch’s figures cover only contributions that identify an individual donor, and any donations to a committee that total less than $200 are not included. To compile the database of CEO political spending, MarketWatch cross-referenced itemized contribution receipts as reported to the FEC with FactSet’s list of CEOs of S&P 500 companies. “Partisan” contributions are defined as those made to a committee that the FEC identifies as party-affiliated; to the principal campaign committee for an individual candidate identified as Republican, Democratic or independent; to joint or leadership committees donating to one party more than 95% of the time, according to OpenSecrets.org; or to super PACs defined as “Conservative/Republican” or “Liberal/Democrat,” according to OpenSecrets.
Graphics by Terrence Horan and Jessica Marmor Shaw.