But just over a decade later, McConnell has a different message for companies: Unless it involves money, they had better stay quiet.
“My warning to corporate America is to stay out of politics,” McConnell said at a news conference in Kentucky on Tuesday, before adding: “I’m not talking about political contributions.”
His comments come amid an escalating battle over Georgia’s sweeping new voting law, which has been publicly condemned by major companies based in the state, including Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines. Major League Baseball has moved its All-Star Game out of Atlanta in response to the legislation, saying it will restrict access to the ballot.
Similar showdowns appear to be brewing elsewhere, with American Airlines criticizing a Texas bill that would prohibit extended voting hours and outlaw drive-through voting across the state, among several other major changes.
McConnell has long supported companies’ political participation, but on Tuesday he joined the Republican charge to attack corporations for speaking out on the voting laws by drawing a distinction between donations and corporate statements.
“Most of them contribute to both sides. They have political action committees. That’s fine. It’s legal. It’s appropriate. I support that,” he told reporters. “I’m talking about taking a position on a highly incendiary issue like this and punishing a community or state because you don’t like a particular law they passed. I just think it’s stupid.”
In a statement earlier this week, he argued that the Georgia voting law would in fact make it easier to access the polls and issued a warning to companies condemning the changes: If they continue to oppose Republicans and engage in “economic blackmail,” McConnell said, they would face unspecified repercussions.
“From election law to environmentalism to radical social agendas to the Second Amendment, parts of the private sector keep dabbling in behaving like a woke parallel government,” McConnell said in a statement. “Corporations will invite serious consequences if they become a vehicle for far-left mobs to hijack our country from outside the constitutional order.”
In the past, McConnell has often spoken in starkly different terms about the role of big business in democracy, as NPR noted in a recent episode of its podcast “Embedded.”
Even while working as an attorney in Kentucky during the 1970s, a young McConnell argued for more money in politics before a college class he taught.
“The three things you need to succeed in politics and to build a political party — money, money, money,” he wrote on the chalkboard during one memorable lesson, NPR reported.
That belief followed him to Washington, where he continued to argue that it is a First Amendment right to spend money on politics. And he practiced it himself: McConnell collected millions of dollars in campaign contributions — and notably, filibustered several bills to regulate the industry.
When the Senate finally passed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act in 2002 with a bare-minimum tally of 60 votes, McConnell sued the Federal Election Commission to block the legislation. That lawsuit, McConnell v. FEC, upheld most parts of the law but eventually gave way to the 2010 Citizens United ruling that he fervently backed.
With some Georgia-based companies now vocal on the state’s voting law, McConnell warned he was not the only one upset over their political statements. Just as companies can put their money behind their politics, loyal members of his party could do the same, he said.
“Republicans drink Coca-Cola, too, and we fly, and we like baseball,” he said. “It’s irritating one hell of a lot of Republican fans.”
Reis Thebault and John Wagner contributed to this report.