Do restaurants donate to candidates? It’s complicated

While big chains like Wendy’s and McDonald’s don’t themselves donate, some have active political action committees that do.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Some big fast-food chains faced criticism this week over political donations made by company directors and their franchisees. The criticisms prompted both Wendy’s and McDonald’s, in particular, to say that they do not make political donations.

But the real answer is more complicated. Both are among a small number of restaurant companies with political action committees (PAC) that take donations from employees, executives or franchisees and in turn donate to candidates or other PACs.

Most of their donations this cycle have gone to Republicans, according to data from—with Maine Sen. Susan Collins a major beneficiary.

So far during the 2020 election cycle, political action committees associated with restaurant chains as well as the National Restaurant Association have donated a total of $1.2 million to individual political candidates.

About three-quarters of those funds have gone to Republican candidates for House or Senate. None, at least thus far, has gone to either President Trump or his Democratic rival, Joe Biden.

Restaurant-affiliated PACs have donated another $404,600 to other political action committees, and much like their donations to individual candidates the bulk of those funds when to Republican organizations, 79%.

To be sure, it’s difficult to find any restaurant company that itself makes political donations. And executives of such chains typically keep their donations to a minimum if they make them at all.

The issues that have come up this week have highlighted one of the challenges restaurant companies face as they try to balance their outward reputation as being above the political fray with an inward desire to keep down the minimum wage and reduce regulations.

Many restaurant chains, for instance, have expressed sympathy with people protesting the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis last week. McDonald’s and Wendy’s, for instance, tweeted in support of Black Lives Matter—while revealing donations. Wendy’s is donating to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, McDonald’s to the NAACP and the National Urban League.

That generated responses from some critics over donations, particularly after peaceful protesters outside of the White House were forcefully cleared away before Trump walked to a church to have his photo taken.

Wendy’s in particular came under fire over a February fundraiser for Trump at the home of the company’s chairman, Nelson Peltz. Wendy’s then said it didn’t make donations, which led to further criticism over the company’s PAC.

Only a few restaurant companies are associated with political action committees: McDonald’s, Outback Steakhouse owner Bloomin’ Brands, Wendy’s, Taco Bell owner Yum Brands, Chili’s owner Brinker International, Dunkin’ Brands and White Castle.

Franchisees for Burger King, KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell also have political action committees.

In most cases, such as Wendy’s and McDonald’s, franchisees make up the bulk of donations. Executives at Yum and Bloomin’, however, donated to their companies’ respective PACs, as did Dunkin’ Brands employees.

Among candidates themselves, Collins proved to be a popular recipient. Restaurant-affiliated PACs have sent her campaign $38,500 this cycle, including $10,000 apiece from McDonald’s and Bloomin’ Brands.

Collins is a member of the powerful Senate Committee on Appropriations and is also a member of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.  

Mitch McConnell, the Republican senate majority leader from Kentucky, has received $16,500.

McDonald’s has the single largest political action committee among restaurant companies. It has donated $369,500 to candidates so far this cycle, and another $92,500 to PACs. Less than two-thirds of its donations go to Republican candidates or Republican PACs.

Most political action committees donate at least some funds to Democratic candidates, but in each case the funds donated at least 59% to Republicans.

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