The recent firestorm over the Target Corporation’s support for Tom Emmer in the Minnesota gubernatorial race illustrates a major pitfall for companies in the post-Citizens United world: They are now free to spend money on political races — but are at risk of being identified with a candidate’s whole agenda, and not just the key issues they might like.
The lesson here is obvious: If you want to keep your brand clean of politics, keep your wallet out of the whole enterprise, too.
As we’d previously reported, Target gave $150,000 to MN Forward, a pro-business group backed by the state Chamber of Commerce, which is running TV ads supporting Emmer. However, this triggered a backlash from gay rights activists and some consumers in this liberal state, due to Emmer’s support for a proposed state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and his close associations with the religious right.
Target’s CEO Gregg Steinhafel explained that his company was supporting Emmer because of economics and business issues, and that the company fully maintained its policies in support of gay rights — for example, they sponsor a group that organizes the state’s annual pride events, and they provide domestic partner benefits for their employees.
But that definitely wasn’t enough for the opposition. The Human Rights Campaign ran a full-page ad in the Star-Tribune, hinting at economic repercussions for both Target and Best Buy, which also donated to MN Forward: “What may have sounded like a ‘good business decision’ in the board room turns out to be a horribly short-sighted business decision when millions of consumers lose respect for your companies.”
Target then backed down, with Steinhafel publicly apologizing for the donation to Emmer, and promising that the company will review any future donations, writing in a letter to employees: “The diversity of our team is an important aspect of our unique culture and our success as a company, and we did not mean to disappoint you, our team or our valued guests.”
Now here’s the rub. Steinhafel’s talk about the company’s pro-gay rights policies was true. According to the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, Target receives a perfect score of 100. But as Target found out, supporting a candidate on pro-business grounds left them open to being associated with his anti-gay policies — even though Target’s own gay rights record was acceptable.
The company sent a statement to the liberal The Awl blog. “Target supports causes and candidates based strictly on issues that affect our retail and business interests. In fact, Target’s Federal PAC contributions year-to-date are very balanced between Republicans and Democrats, and we work collaboratively with legislators and officials at all points on the political spectrum,” the statement said, also adding: “Target is proud of the diversity of its team, and we greatly value the wide range of perspectives offered by all of our team members.”
The Awl also points out that Steinhafel as an individual has donated to Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), and outgoing Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s Freedom First PAC. Bachmann has made various anti-gay statements throughout her career, such as her dire warning that “little children will be forced to learn that homosexuality is normal, natural and perhaps they should try it.”
Of course, there are other ways to deal with this conundrum, besides staying out entirely, if the politicians deal with the issues as well. For example, over in the Nevada Senate race, Sharron Angle says she won’t accept donations from companies that give domestic-partner benefits, though this appears to have been a mechanical “yes” answer on a questionnaire from a group that wanted this very response.
And obviously, it should be noted that with current polls showing Emmer losing badly, maybe companies should stay out simply to avoid wasting money.