Retail giants gear up for Black Friday — and political giving

Compared to last year, major big-box chains are spending less this year in direct contributions and domestic lobbying.

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SOURCEOpen Secrets
Shoppers pass a promotional sign for 'Black Friday' sales discounts, outside a store on Oxford Street in London, on November 26, 2019. - Black Friday is a sales offer originating from the US where retailers slash prices on the day after the Thanksgiving holiday. In the UK it is used as a marketing device to entice Christmas shoppers with the discounts at stores often lasting for a week. (Photo by Tolga Akmen / AFP) (Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)

Ready, shoppers? Your long-awaited holidays are afoot — so are the countless deals up for grabs.

But as millions of Americans gear up to flood drop-in shops and online stores for Black Friday sales, some of the top retail giants are pouring big bucks into the political sphere. 

In the wake of ongoing U.S-China trade tension, many corporate giants are ramping up lobbying efforts this year, hiring President Donald Trump-linked lobbyists to try to steer the administration away from business-hurting tariffs. Some are growing more vocal on social issues and launching influence campaigns to sway Congress, giving campaign cash to dozens of congressional candidates up for reelection in 2020.

Compared to last year, major big-box chains are spending less this year in direct contributions and domestic lobbying. Despite the decrease, retail giants are still demonstrating substantial influence in the political realm. 

Amazon

The world’s biggest online retailer saw record-breaking sales during last year’s Thanksgiving week, with more than 18 million toys and 13 million fashion items sold on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. The company could refresh its record this year as holiday non-store sales are estimated to grow by 11 to 14 percent compared to last year. 

The company also broke its own lobbying spending record last year, doling out $14.4 million as the Pentagon considered Amazon as one of the frontrunners for a $10 billion contract. The contract was awarded instead to Microsoft last month, which prompted a lawsuit from Amazon. The company did not release the complaint but said it intends to submit videos of Trump’s comments on the issue as evidence as it challenges the department’s decision. 

The lawsuit came as the president mocked Amazon owner Jeff Bezos on Twitter for his ownership of The Washington Post and attacked the paper’s presidential coverage. As the relationship between the two continues to sour this year, Amazon is approaching its lobbying spending record, burning cash at a higher pace each quarter compared to last year. The company has shelled out $12.4 million during the first three quarters of this year on technology, trade and tax issues, among others. 

The company invested heavily in state-level elections this year, pouring almost $1.5 million into the Seattle City Council races to sway voters against a head tax that could harm its business. It also increased contributions to state elections in Virginia — home to its new East Coast headquarters — giving $278,000 as of the end of October. Federal-level political giving from Amazon’s PAC and employees plunged this year, totaling $1.6 million so far after its record-high $13.6 million of contributions ahead of the midterms last year. However, the bulk of last year’s contributions came from Bezos, who alone injected $10.2 million into the With Honor Fund, a super PAC backing candidates who were military veterans. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) respectively received $134,224 and $75,830 from Amazon affiliates, leading a crowded pool of Democratic presidential contenders. Both Sanders and Warren have spoken against corporate interests and rejected PAC contributions. Amazon’s PAC spread its wealth among lawmakers of the two major parties, giving $275,000 to Democrats and $296,000 to Republicans. 

Walmart

Having unveiled Black Friday deals weeks ahead of Thanksgiving, the world’s largest brick-and-mortar retail company is expected to rake in huge profits from this year’s holiday sales. 

After two shootings that took 24 lives at its stores in El Paso, Texas and Southaven, Mississippi this summer, the retail chain banned in-store open carry and stopped selling military-style ammunition and handguns. The company also called for federal lawmakers to strengthen background check legislation and introduce bills to create a safer environment.

Top executives of Walmart also spoke out on climate change issues as the company launched projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. On the heels of Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, a United Nations initiative to address global warming, Walmart Executive Vice President Kathleen McLaughlin co-authored an op-ed criticizing the withdrawal as “unfortunate” and warned that it would damage the American economy and put Americans at “greater risk.”

Direct contributions to candidates from the company’s PAC and affiliates dropped from last year, totaling $993,204 this year. Like Amazon, Walmart affiliates also favored Sanders among all presidential candidates, giving the Vermont senator $68,438. The company’s PAC gave $422,000 to federal candidates of both parties and channeled $30,000 each to all four national congressional party committees. 

The company’s lobbying expenditure is also down compared to previous years. Walmart has spent $4.7 million this year thus far, lobbying on environmental sustainability, drug pricing and other hot-button issues. The company is also lobbying on multiple trade-related issues as the tariff war between the U.S. and China exacerbates and Congress continues to work on the new trade agreement among the U.S., Mexico and Canada. 

Walmart is actively involved in state politics as well. Lobbyists representing the interests of the company as well as other retail giants, for example, helped draft bills in Florida that would require customers to pay an online sales tax, Orlando Sentinel reported. 

Best Buy

The largest electronics retail chain in the world, Best Buy reported strong revenue during the third quarter and predicted higher earnings toward the end of the year, setting high expectations ahead of the holiday sales. The company said the tariffs did not have a major impact on its revenue after lowering its revenue forecast in August due to the Trump administration’s threat of tariffs on Chinese goods.

Unsurprisingly, employees at the Minnesota-based company gave the most money — $18,273 — to Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) among the Democratic presidential candidates. Sanders follows closely behind, receiving $17,384 from company employees. The company’s PAC gave $91,500 to federal lawmakers and $15,000 each to the Democratic and Republican Senate-focused party committees. 

The company spent $1.1 million this year on lobbying, slightly down from last year. As U.S.-China trade tensions loomed, Best Buy’s lobbyists centered around trade issues with China and steel and aluminum tariffs. The electronics chain, which has long advocated for lower corporate tax ratesreaped benefits from the enactment of Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 and is now lobbying on the implementation of the legislation this year.

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