Perhaps more than any other politician, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has both vigorously defended and benefited from the windfall of large-dollar, often anonymous money flooding elections over the past decade. He has fought in the vanguard of the forces blocking bipartisan reform while helping to raise millions from corporate interests from CEOs, anonymous dark money groups and massive gifts to his allied political committees.
In public, McConnell claims that his advocacy for more money in politics is all about defending free speech, but behind closed doors, he reportedly told other Senators that it is actually about winning elections. Given the massive sums he has helped raise to power both his own campaigns and those of other senators, it is not surprising that he wants to keep the corporate cash flowing — and will use any excuse and any tool at his disposal to do so.
As a legislator, McConnell has championed some of the same industries that have helped him win elections. This mutual dependence means that McConnell needs America’s campaign finance system to stay broken in order for him to hang on to power.
McConnell has welcomed money in politics
Oct 14, 1999
McConnell vocally opposed — and later used the filibuster to block — the bipartisan McCain-Feingold campaign finance reforms which would have limited the ability of corporations to spend on politics.
Mar 27, 2002
A more limited version of their reforms known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) is enacted. McConnell sued the Federal Election Commission to limit the power of the law. He lost in the Supreme Court, but it was only a matter of a few years before the Court, under new Chief Justice John Roberts, began striking down the very rules it had upheld in the McConnell case.
Jun 25, 2007
Jan 21, 2010
McConnell applauded the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which paved the way for corporations to spend massive sums on politics, saying, “For too long, some in this country have been deprived of full participation in the political process. With today’s monumental decision, the Supreme Court took an important step in the direction of restoring the First Amendment rights of these groups.”
Apr 07, 2021
McConnell spoke out against the For the People Act, which aims to cut down on corporate influence in politics and expand voting rights. He has also criticized it in meetings with Senate colleagues.
Multiple avenues for corporate cash
Corporations can’t legally give to candidates’ campaign committees, but their chief executives can, and McConnell is a top recipient of CEO cash. In the 2020 election cycle alone, he raised more than $250,000 from 37 different Fortune 500 CEOs, more than any other candidate in a competitive race.
Not only has McConnell raised a lot of money from corporate executives, but he may be particularly reliant on them because only a small fraction of his donations come from his constituents in Kentucky. In the 2020 cycle, less than eight percent of donations to his campaign came from his home state.
Super PACs and dark money groups are allowed to raise money in unlimited sums from corporations directly. They can raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations and spend the contributions on elections. McConnell is closely aligned with a super PAC called the Senate Leadership Fund that helps elect Republicans to the Senate.
Elected officials aren’t supposed to solicit large donations to super PACs, but there are ways around those rules. McConnell has reportedly helped raise money for the super PAC. Last year, the group’s president, who is a former McConnell aide named Steven Law, said, “There’s no way we would be where we are financially without Leader McConnell’s disciplined and tireless promotion of our efforts to hold the Senate.” McConnell called the group a “huge help.”
The Senate Leadership Fund relies heavily on corporations for its fundraising, taking in millions from corporate interests each cycle. In the 2020 cycle, it received $6.5 million from the National Association of Realtors, $5 million from the American Petroleum Institute, $4.4 million from Chevron, $2.6 million from Reynolds tobacco, $2 million from Koch Industries, and $1.25 million from Pilot gas stations. Chicken processing company Mountaire gave $500,000 last cycle, its first-ever contribution to the group.
The Senate Leadership Fund’s biggest donor of all last cycle was a sister dark money group, also run by Law, called One Nation. One Nation also spends to back Republican control of the Senate. While One Nation does not reveal its donors, CREW and others have identified five-figure, six-figure, and seven-figure contributions from insurance, health care, and oil interests, respectively. A recently-filed disclosure shows the pharmacy company CVS gave One Nation $1.75 million last year. CVS also gave a matching contribution to the group Majority Forward, an analog dark money group to One Nation that helps elect Senate Democrats.
How McConnell has helped big industries, and reaped campaign cash
From early on in the pandemic, McConnell took the position that Congress should give corporations legal protections when their employees got sick on the job. That was good news to the meat processing industry, whose employees were facing pressure to keep coming to work while sick, in spite of rising cases.
McConnell’s advocacy for liability protections coincided with a jump in the meat processing industry’s financial support. In addition to the $500,000 that Mountaire gave to the Senate Leadership Fund, McConnell’s campaign took in more in donations from the meat processing industry last cycle than any other member of Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He’d never topped that list before. The last time he was up for reelection, he wasn’t in the top twenty recipients of the industry’s cash, raising less than a third of the $37,000 they kicked in 2019 and 2020.
McConnell raising money from the meat processing industry while going to bat for them on policy is illustrative of the relationship he’s had as a “special friend” to corporate interests that have also included tobacco, coal, and pharmaceutical manufacturers. McConnell has used his position in the Senate to aggressively advocate for traditional corporate priorities like lower corporate taxes and limited regulations. In turn, he’s been a top beneficiary of corporate political spending.
This all shows that while Mitch McConnell defends money in politics with dubious claims of wanting to protect the First Amendment, his own dependence on corporate money is like nothing the founding fathers could have ever imagined.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Politicians can be accountable to their constituents instead of corporations, and there’s already a bill with the Senate that would be a huge step in that direction. The For the People Act is a significant campaign finance and democracy reform that amplifies the voice of grassroots donors and drags anonymous money out of the dark. If we know anything about Mitch McConnell, it’s that he will try to block the bill using the filibuster, because his political operation depends on limited access to the vote and limitless corporate cash in elections. He can’t be allowed to succeed.