Publix's political committee resumed contributing to candidates last year following a controversy in 2018, and its donations are now less tilted toward Republicans.
LAKELAND — Publix is back in the political game, but its strategy seems aimed at minimizing risk following a backlash in the 2018 election.
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Like many companies, the Lakeland-based grocery chain long ago created a political action committee that directs money to candidates for national office. The committee did so without attracting much attention until two years ago, when Publix became ensnared in a political skirmish over its donations to a home-county candidate it had long supported.
The controversy prompted Publix to cease making political donations, though its PAC quietly resumed giving money to candidates last year.
The Publix Super Markets Inc. Associates Political Action Committee has doled out nearly $425,000 to candidates and committees in the current election cycle. That is considerably less than the PAC dispensed in the 2016 campaign, the last election that included a presidential race.
In the past, Publix’s contributions were heavily tilted toward Republicans. So far in this election cycle, the PAC’s donations are much more balanced, though nearly 58% of the money has gone to Republicans.
The committee directed 84.1% of its contributions to Republicans in the 2016 election and 77.6% to Republicans in 2018 before suspending its donations.
Joshua M. Scacco, an associate professor of political communication at the University of South Florida, describes that as a “hedge your bets” strategy. Democrats have taken control of the House of Representatives since the 2016 campaign, giving them more sway in setting policies that Publix seeks to influence.
“Also, political action committees can read surveys and polls like everyone else and can potentially see where the political winds are blowing,” Scacco said. “So if they want to ensure they’re getting access and influence to the individuals who are making the decisions, right now the picture looks better for the Democratic Party in the election.”
A residual sting from the negative publicity in 2018 might also be apparent in one conspicuous absence among the candidates receiving Publix’s financial support. While the PAC has contributed to dozens of candidates as far away as Wyoming, it has not given money to the House member whose district includes Lakeland U.S. Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover.
Spano, seeking a second term in Congress, faces multiple investigations over his campaign’s apparent misuse of funds in the 2018 election. If that is why the Publix PAC opted not to direct money to Spano’s campaign, the company isn’t saying.
“We do not comment on our political contributions,” Publix spokeswoman Maria Brous said in response to an inquiry from The Ledger.
Publix’s temporary retreat from political activity involved its support for Bartow native Adam Putnam, a former Congressman who was campaigning to become Florida’s governor. Putnam, a Republican then in his second term as Florida’s commissioner of agriculture and consumer affairs, generated controversy in 2017 when he proclaimed himself “a proud NRA sellout,” a reference to the organization that aggressively challenges restrictions on gun ownership and use.
A gunman killed 17 people during an attack at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018, a tragedy that invigorated the push for new gun restrictions in Florida and nationwide. Gun-control activists, including some Douglas High students, trained criticism on Putnam, and reporting emerged showing the Publix PAC had given his campaigns $670,000 through his political career.
David Hogg, a Douglas High student and prominent gun-control activist, organized a series of “die-ins” at Publix stores, in which protesters chanted and lay down in aisles as if shot. Even before those demonstrations took place, Publix announced that it would halt making political contributions.
The suspension held through the rest of the 2018 election cycle, but the Publix PAC resumed its political activities with a $1,000 donation in January 2019 to the committee of Sen. Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina.
In a sign of its shift to a less partisan strategy, the next month Publix gave $30,000 each to the Democratic and Republican national campaign committees.
Scacco said large companies such as Publix almost have to join the political contribution game. He said it’s partly a matter of “keeping up with the Joneses,” meaning competing companies and industry groups seeking to influence lawmakers.
“A company with a national reach will by default have national priorities,” Scacco said. “And so because of that, representing the interests of that company from a government affairs perspective becomes important, and so that’s what makes it potentially difficult to refrain from involvement.”
Scacco said corporate PACs follow two main approaches, which he described as an access strategy or a replacement strategy. In the latter case, a committee supports challengers likely to pursue policies more favorable to the company.
Assessing Publix’s contribution records, Scacco said it’s clear the committee is pursuing the access strategy.
“Access is a lot of different things,” he said. “It could be five minutes with a candidate or representative at a fundraiser, and that’s entirely off the record; that’s secret, those types of conversations. It could be getting formal time on a representative or senator’s schedule in their office. So influence is exercised in a lot of different ways.”
Political action committees are allowed to give $5,000 to a candidate’s committee in primary and general elections and the same amount annually to other PACs. They may contribute unlimited amounts to national party committees.
In all, the Publix PAC had made 217 separate contributions through the end of June, the period covered in the most recent disclosure reports filed with the Federal Elections Committee. That activity includes donations to the two other House members whose districts touch Polk County $3,000 to Rep. Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee, and $2,500 to Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota.
Publix, one of the 10 largest grocery chains in the country, operates more than 1,200 stores in seven states, ranging as far north as Virginia. The preponderance of the PAC’s donations have gone to congressional candidates in those seven states, and most of the individual donations have gone to incumbents.
In Florida, the Publix PAC has given money to both senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, though neither Republican is up for re-election this year. The PAC has also steered money to a diverse array of House members, including Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, D-Sunrise, a prominent liberal, and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, a fiery conservative.
Other recipients in Florida include Democratic representatives Kathy Castor, Stephanie Murphy and Val Demings and Republicans Vern Buchanan, Mario Diaz-Balart and Gus Bilirakis.
Through the end of June, the Publix PAC had not contributed to Lakeland City Commissioner Scott Franklin, who is challenging Spano in the Republican primary in House District 15.
The Publix PAC has given to plenty of candidates outside of Florida. Among senators, the committee has supported Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, Doug Jones, D-Alabama, and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee.
Recipients in the House include Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, Bobby Scott, D-Virginia, and Joe Wilson, R-South Carolina.
The Publix committee has directed some money to candidates in states where the company does not have a presence. It has given to the committee of Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and Susan Collins, R-Maine.
The most distant recipients of Publix money have been Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, and Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming.
Scacco noted that the Publix PAC’s donations have gone mostly to members of Congress who sit on committees that set regulations potentially affecting the grocery industry. For example Sasse is on the Senate Finance Committee.
Cheney is chairwoman of the House Republican Conference.
Giving to PACs
Along with its contributions to candidates, the Publix PAC has given large amounts in this election cycle to other political committees. It has handed out $30,000 in the current cycle to each of the committees supporting Democratic and Republican candidates in the House and Senate, for a total of $120,000.
The committee has given much smaller amounts to industry groups, such as the Retail Industry Leaders Association.
Corporate PACs can receive money from the company itself and from individuals. Almost all of the money the Publix committee has received in this election cycle has come from individuals, according to FEC records.
Many of those appear to be from Publix employees who have amounts as small as $8 deducted from their paychecks. The FEC’s itemized list contains more than 6,600 entries.
Federal rules allow individuals to give up to $5,000 a year to a political committee.
It’s not clear who decides how the Publix committee will dispense its money. Forms submitted to the FEC identify only the committee’s treasurer, Allison Penn, who is listed as the company’s government relations specialist.
In addition to the political contributions of its committee, Publix engages in direct lobbying of elected officials, as do most companies of its size. Publix reports spending $220,000 on lobbying so far this year, after spending $500,000 in 2018.
Disclosure forms show Publix lobbyists spoke to members of Congress about such bills as the New Parents Act, No Federal Funding to Benefit Sanctuary Cities Act and Raise the Wage Act, the latter an attempt to raise the federal minimum wage.
The reports don’t say what position the company took on the bills.
Publix has not faced the question of whether to donate again to Putnam. He lost in the 2018 Republican primary to Ron DeSantis, who was later elected as Florida’s governor.
Gary White can be reached at email@example.com or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.