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Conor Sen: The GOP's nasty breakup with big business

Conor Sen: The GOP's nasty breakup with big business

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Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s statement on Monday threatening corporations that get involved in political issues like Georgia’s recently passed election law rings a bit hollow.

After all, it’s hard to see a party that’s been committed to tax cuts and deregulation for decades doing anything that harms corporate interests in a meaningful way. But the response of some GOP elected officials to the recent actions of Delta Air Lines Inc. and Major League Baseball shows how corporate activism is animating the conservative base. With Republicans searching for an issue to run on in the 2022 elections in key states like Georgia, they may have found their boogeyman.

It’s not worth spending much time hashing out why the party that made a large corporate tax cut its signature piece of legislation under President Donald Trump, and which is blasting Democrats’ plan to raise the tax rate again, isn’t currently in a position to demonize corporations. The numbers in the Republican congressional caucus to pursue any actions aren’t there right now, nor will they be there after the 2022 elections. It takes time for Congress to turn over, particularly when the issue has been the economic centerpiece of a party for decades.

But last week felt like a watershed moment in the relationship between the Republican Party and corporations that neither side fully understands yet — and which could turn into a central issue for Republicans campaigning in the midterms.

In a news conference last week, Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, up for reelection in 2022, defended the state’s new election law, saying the backlash was “worth the boycotts” and that he would “not be backing down from this fight.” Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who’s also up for reelection in 2022, sided with Kemp when he said on Monday that the state would not seek to host the Major League Baseball All-Star Game following the league’s announcement that it would be moving the game from Atlanta, where it was originally scheduled.

There have been signs over the past several years that Republicans were getting aggravated by big companies, following the lead of then-President Trump, who would complain about the media, or Amazon or whoever else he felt like tweeting about at a particular moment. One of the more interesting examples of this happened last month when Florida Sen. Marco Rubio expressed sympathy with Amazon workers’ efforts to unionize in Alabama — not because of a change of heart on labor organizing, but because of the perceived progressive activism of the company on cultural issues.

We’ve also seen Republicans get charged up by mini news cycles involving the Potato Head toy and Dr. Seuss books, which have been providing outlets for outrage in a way that President Joe Biden has largely managed to avoid. To some extent this battle against “cancel culture” feels like the fight they want right now.

And it could have ramifications in the 2022 elections should Republican candidates run on the issue. At this point it wouldn’t be surprising if, instead of focusing on his Democratic opponent, Sen. Raphael Warnock, the Georgia Republican Senate nominee ran against Major League Baseball, Delta Air Lines, Coca-Cola Co. or any other local or national business interest that’s perceived as being on the “other side.” Meanwhile, Warnock’s campaign message might be that voter suppression is bad for business, and that Democrats are the better choice for both civil rights and business interests. In Georgia, where the Republican Party has prided itself for years on being the No. 1 state for business, it would be a sea change.

In the last two midterm elections after a newly-elected president, there’s been a theme aimed at motivating an emotional part of the electorate. In 2010 it was a tea party faction animated by opposition to then-President Barack Obama and the Affordable Care Act. In 2018 it was college-educated and suburban voters united by their opposition to Trump. It’s early, but at the moment it looks like 2022 might be Trump’s base mobilizing against corporate interests that are siding against them in cultural and political fights.

Conor Sen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and the founder of Peachtree Creek Investments. He lives in Atlanta.

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