Long Viewed as an Ally of Democrats, It's Now Courting Conservatives on Issues Affecting Its Business
WASHINGTON— Google Inc. employees have been a top source of campaign cash for President Barack Obama. A former chief executive campaigned for the president. Several company executives went to work in his administration.
Behind the scenes, though, the company has been working hard to change its profile as an ally of the Democratic Party, courting Republicans and building alliances with conservatives at a time when regulators and Congress are considering issues affecting its business interests.
Google has hired a string of Republican operatives as part of an effort to build relationships with GOP lawmakers and has evened out the campaign donations from its political-action committee, which had skewed in favor of Democratic candidates.
In 2011, Google began ramping up its funding of an array of conservative groups, including some that oppose the company's policy stances, which include support for gay marriage, relaxing restrictions on immigration and reducing greenhouse gases.
Google's executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, shown at Google's Big Tent in April in Washington, D.C., had been assailed in 2011 by Republican Sen. Mike Lee at an antitrust hearing. Google changed its approach. Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Google's quiet evolution into a pragmatic, inside-Washington player mirrors a broader shift by many major companies in Silicon Valley. Tech companies such as Facebook and Twitter have been staffing up in the capital, eager to head-off regulation that could harm their businesses.
"Many of the leading tech companies may be located in the Silicon Valley, but they're responsible for creating jobs and growing the economy in virtually every congressional district in every state in the country," said Brian Walsh, a former Republican campaign strategist who is now a political consultant for the tech industry. "So it only makes smart, long-term strategic sense to build relationships with members of both parties, regardless of who controls Congress or the White House at any given time."
Google's move to cover its right flank in Washington intensified as the Federal Trade Commission, starting in 2011, moved to bring a sweeping antitrust suit against the company, which it eventually settled. It also came as archrival Microsoft Corp. , well-known in Washington as a generous funder of groups that can help advance its policy agenda, sought to persuade regulators to bring actions against Google on privacy, antitrust and other matters.
The company says it must engage with policy makers of all stripes to help them understand its business and to gain a voice in policy debates. "We support groups across the political spectrum but of course don't agree with them on 100% of issues," a spokeswoman said.
Google was the biggest donor at the annual fundraising dinner last year of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based group that opposes government policies to cut carbon emissions. The dinner was headlined by tea-party-aligned Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.). Google donated $50,000, according to the invitation and information from the group.
Google also gave what it terms "substantial support" to other conservative and libertarian groups, including the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and Americans for Tax Reform. It gives the libertarian Cato Institute $480,000 worth of free web advertising annually, according to Cato. It gave the Federalist Society as much as $49,000 last year, the group said.
It provided support to Heritage Action, which helped lead the charge to defund the 2010 health-care law that prompted October's partial government shutdown; to the American Conservative Union, which runs the annual CPAC conference, a landmark on the conservative calendar; and to the American Legislative Exchange Council, which writes model conservative legislation for states and has drawn criticism from the left.
To be sure, Google gives to a range of liberal-leaning organizations, such as the Center for American Progress, which has close ties to the Obama administration. It has also given to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.
Google releases the names of groups to which it provides substantial support but declined to disclose how much it contributed to each.
The contributions mark a contrast with the apparent political leanings of the company's own employees, who donated $1.6 million to Mr. Obama's two presidential campaigns. Employees of only one other company—Microsoft—gave more money to Mr. Obama's campaigns.
The $800,000 in contributions to Mr. Obama in 2012 swamped the total that Google employees donated to Republican Mitt Romney, which was about $40,000, according to data compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Libertarian-Republican Ron Paul drew more money from Google employees than did Mr. Romney.
The rightward turn has some liberal-leaning groups complaining that the company has compromised its principles. In funding conservative causes, "Google is right up there with the Koch Brothers," said John Simpson, a frequent critic of the company and director of the privacy project at Consumer Watchdog, a progressive public-interest group. "The galling thing is they hold themselves out to be something different."
Many Republicans see value in getting some tech know-how on their side. Kevin Madden, a former adviser to Mr. Romney, said the tech industry at first "gravitated toward and initiated alliances with those they felt most comfortable with"—mostly Democrats. Reaching out to Republicans, he said, "will help forge a more enduring, bipartisan profile for the industry inside the political arena."
Many groups receiving money from Google declined to speak about the company, while others said their policy work was independent of their donors' interests. The Competitive Enterprise Institute said it was "not unusual for us to receive support from companies that don't agree with us 100% of the time."
Google found itself with few GOP friends in Washington as it defended itself in 2011 from a series of serious threats to its business.
Companies often expect to get help from Republicans during antitrust battles with the government, as they tend to be less enthusiastic about trustbusting than Democrats. But Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, the top Republican on the Senate's antitrust subcommittee and a tea-party favorite, assailed Eric Schmidt, Google's executive chairman, during an antitrust hearing in September 2011.
A Republican congressman also introduced later that year the Stop Online Piracy Act that Google furiously opposed.
Google moved to change that situation. On a visit to Google's Washington office in 2009, Obama campaign posters could be seen dotted around their Washington office.
The office has a different feel today. Starting in 2010, when the antitrust case first started appearing on the horizon, Google started hiring Republican lobbyists and communications staff.
To head up its Washington office, Google in 2012 hired former Republican congresswoman Susan Molinari. Niki Christoff, a veteran of Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign, was moved to Washington last year to head up Google's communications in the capital.
Before that, Google hired Pablo Chavez, a former general counsel for Mr. McCain, who recently left for LinkedIn; Seth Webb, a former staffer for the Republican Speaker of the House; and Jill Hazelbaker, who also worked for a string of Republican candidates.
Today, Google's in-house lobbyists are evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, says a person familiar with the situation.
Its spending on lobbying rose from around $1.5 million in 2007 to $14 million in 2013.
Last summer, Google raised the ire of environmentalists when it hosted a political fundraiser for Sen. James Inhofe (R., Okla.), who has said he believes human-induced climate change is a "hoax."
In the 2008 election cycle, Google's political-action committee, funded by employee donations, supported Democrats, 58% to 42%, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. In the 2012 cycle, Republicans took a slight lead, and in the current election cycle, donations to the parties are running about even.
contributed to this article.
Write to Thomas Catan at [email protected] and Brody Mullins at [email protected]