The travel sector isn’t one to shy away from politics, and the 2020 presidential and down ballot races are no different.
Some things never change: Casino executives like Las Vegas Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson and ex-Wynn Resorts CEO Steve Wynn continue to donate millions to Republican candidates like U.S. President Donald Trump. The Pritzker family, which largely controls Hyatt and includes the current Illinois governor as a member, still reliably donates to Democratic candidates like former Vice President Joe Biden.
The airline, cruise, and hotel sectors generally favor the Democratic challenger to Trump in 2020 as they did four years ago with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But there is also notable travel industrywide list momentum away from favoring the Republican Party in congressional races four years ago to Democrats in 2020, according to industry donor data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
“The first factor you can’t ignore is Democrats overall are fundraising much, much more than Republicans this cycle, so we’d expect an increase in the Democratic haul from any industry,” said Sarah Bryner, director of research and strategy at the Center for Responsive Politics. “In addition, there is obviously the one-two punch of the pandemic and the recession, which has obviously hit the travel industry very, very hard. One may extrapolate the donor behavior of those in this industry as a condemnation of how the president is handling those two issues. That reflects poorly on Republicans and fundraising.”
The airline industry has the narrowest margin in political donations between the two presidential candidates this year, with individuals working at various U.S. airlines and political action committees donating $1.33 million to Biden and $1.31 million to Trump. There was a wider gap but fewer dollars in 2016, with $640,000 going to Clinton and $272,000 going to Trump.
The bigger swing came down ballot in congressional races. The airline industry donated $1.2 million so far to Democratic House and Senate candidates compared to just over $1 million for Republicans. In 2016, more than $1.2 million went to Republican House candidates, and only $655,000 went to Democrats.
“It’s not all too uncommon for industries to donate to a party or candidate predicted to win. After all, those in power are better situated to respond to the needs and wishes of the industry,” said Casey Burgat, the director of George Washington University’s legislative affairs graduate program. “Backing predicted winners is a way to show support for those that will soon have outsized powers to affect the industry through legislation or regulatory authorities.”
Airline executives have generally been bipartisan with their political capital this election season.
United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby — prior to becoming CEO in May — donated $2,000 to Sen. Mark Warner’s (D-Va.) primary in March, $2,000 to Sen. John Cornyn’s (R-Tex.) primary campaign in November of last year, and $1,500 to Sen. Dick Durbin’s (D-Ill.) in June of 2019, according to the Federal Elections Commission. All candidates were running in states where United operates a hub.
Delta CEO Ed Bastian has a similar hub approach to some of his own political donations.
The Atlanta-based airline executive donated the $2,800 maximum individual contribution to Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s (R-Ga.) highly watched special election campaign. Bastian also maxed out on personal donations to Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s (D-Minn.) primary campaign in August of last year and to Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) primary campaign in May 2019. Bastian also donated to various committees supporting Sen. David Perdue’s (R-Ga,) primary and general campaign last fall. Each of these candidates all hail from Delta hub states.
“CEOs are among the few who give to both parties, and that’s access-seeking behavior,” Bryner said. “With an executive, you might have reason to believe you’ll have better access if you’re seen as a friendly donor. It is something business executives recognize and is reflected in behavior where they favor incumbents and people in their own district.”
American Airlines CEO Doug Parker made several $2,800 donations to Peters’ Senate race in Michigan since last year. Parker also donated $2,700 in January to the Thom Tillis Committee, a group supporting Sen. Thom Tillis’ (R-N.C.) primary campaign, and $2,800 last year to the McConnell Senate Committee, an organization supporting Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Only Tillis is in a state where American operates a hub.
“When we see companies or industries donate to both parties, this is a signal that they aren’t entirely sure who is going to win and are covering their bases with both,” Burgat added.
Alaska Airlines CEO Bradley Tilden was the only major U.S. airline chief executive who donated so far to a U.S. presidential candidate, according to FEC filings. Tilden gave $2,800 to the Biden for President committee in March.
Including casino resorts, the hotel industry is a house divided when it comes to political donations: Traditional hotel executives favor Democrats this cycle while casino executives donate to Republicans.
The lodging industry, in general, favors Biden to Trump, donating $1.9 million to the Democrat and $1.1 million to the Republican incumbent. Democratic congressional candidates also benefit, receiving $2.2 million from the industry compared to $1.5 million for Republicans.
Republican congressional candidates won out more in 2016, netting more than $2 million from the industry compared to $1.4 million for Democratic candidates. But the industry’s leading trade organization stresses bipartisanship of all forms is key, especially during such a catastrophic year for travel.
“Now more than ever, we need Congress to work in a bipartisan manner to help save hotel jobs. We have a long history of supporting and working in a bipartisan, bicameral way with lawmakers who have championed our issue priorities,” said Brian Crawford, executive vice president of government affairs at the American Hotel & Lodging Association, in an email to Skift. “Hotels are in every state and every Congressional district, and we need both parties to come together at this critical time for our industry.”
Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson donated $2,800 to the Biden for President committee in March as well as Klobuchar’s primary campaign in December. Various members of the Hyatt-controlling Pritzker family donated to the Biden for President committee.
The most notable Republican donor in the Pritzker family, Jennifer, donated $2,000 to Joe Biden’s campaign in August and $100,000 to the pro-Biden Lincoln Project earlier this month. Jennifer — who is transgender and previously donated more than $250,000 to various pro-Trump groups four years ago — dropped her support of the president when he issued a ban on transgender members of the military in 2017, Forbes reported. She retired in 2001 as a lieutenant colonel from the U.S. Army.
Casino executives donate to the other side of the aisle — and by a much wider margin.
Las Vegas Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson is a major contributor to Republican candidates, and 2020 is no different. Adelson and his wife, Miriam, are the biggest individual donors this election cycle – donating more than $183 million so far to various Republican candidates and causes, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Controversial and former Wynn Resorts CEO Steve Wynn and his wife, Andrea, crack the top 50 for overall political contributions this cycle, donating $6.4 million to Republican groups.
The cruise industry, like other travel sectors, made a similar shift to favoring Democratic congressional candidates in 2020 away from the Republicans it favored in 2016. But one thing is clear: Industry donors appear to dislike Trump in both elections.
Trump didn’t even crack the top 20 for donor recipients by the cruise industry in 2016 (Clinton — with $63,000 — received the most). The president fared better this year, at seventh place with nearly $19,000 in donations. But Biden brought home the most, with more than $65,000.
Royal Caribbean CEO Richard Fain was the most active cruise executive when it came to political donations, donating both the $2,800 individual maximum directly to Sen. Cory Booker’s (D-N.J.) primary and reelection campaign to the Senate as well as $5,600 to a political action committee. Fain also donated to Rep. Donna Shalala’s (D-Fla.) primary and general reelection campaign.
But Fain also made donations to Republican candidates like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Cornyn.
While smart business sense may drive bipartisan donating, there is also the question of why bother to donate at all — especially in an increasingly polarized political environment where executives may run the risk of alienating employees over their perceived political stances.
“Making overt and public political donations can serve as a signal to the corporation’s employees of where the leaders, and through them the corporation, stands on the candidates or parties,” Burgat said. “Doing so can also serve as a point of differentiation with other corporations within the same industry as a means of gaining a more favorable impression from those candidates or parties when they are in power.”