McConnell, a longtime defender of corporate discourse, now suggests that executives “stay out of politics.”

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Kentucky Republican Senator Mitch McConnell has long argued that corporate campaign donations are a protected, almost sacred form of political communication. On Tuesday, he argued that business executives might be better off limiting their freedom of speech to writing checks.

In recent days, Mr McConnell, the minority leader, has criticized executives at Major League Baseball, Coca-Cola, Delta and other companies for criticizing Republican-led efforts to impose restrictions on the access to the vote in Georgia and other states, accusing them. “intimidating” politicians.

Mr McConnell went even further on Tuesday, speaking in his home state during a long back-and-forth with reporters.

“My warning, if you will, to American business is to stay out of politics,” McConnell said after an appearance promoting the distribution of vaccines in Louisville. “It’s not what you were designed to do. And don’t be intimidated by the left into taking up causes that put you at the heart of America’s biggest political debates.

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When asked to define the activities that executives should avoid, he replied, “I’m not talking about political contributions.”

Brian Fallon, former senior aide to Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the leader of the Democratic majority, said Mr McConnell’s comments reflected the struggle of a once powerful leader trying to find his way after his loss of the majority in the Senate and a rift with former President Donald J. Trump over the January 6 riot.

“The earth is moving under his feet,” said Mr. Fallon, who now heads a group opposed to Mr. McConnell’s judicial appointments. “He criticizes companies for getting into political debates after years of defending their right to spend unlimited sums on political campaigns. He’s a guy used to throwing punches, but he’s suddenly helpless and restless.

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Relatives of Mr McConnell say he is only highlighting the political dangers of business leaders engaging in partisan debates, even though he has often touted business leaders’ support for his efforts to reduce labor costs. taxes and regulations.

Mr McConnell told reporters he was not implying that business leaders were not allowed to speak out, but suggested that the best way to communicate was to contribute money to campaigns.

“Republicans,” he said, “also drink Coca-Cola, and we steal.”

Businesses and sports leagues were “not very smart” to influence voting bills, he said.

And the MLB’s decision to pull the All-Star Game out of Atlanta to protest Georgia’s law, he added, “has pissed off a hell of a lot of Republican fans.”

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Mr McConnell was one of the main opponents of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill that restrained spending by businesses and unions, challenging it in court nearly two decades ago.

And he celebrated Citizens United’s landmark Supreme Court ruling that overturned it in 2010, a ruling saying businesses have similar free speech rights for individuals.

“For too long, some in this country have been denied their full participation in the political process. With today’s monumental decision, the Supreme Court has taken an important step towards restoring the First Amendment rights of these groups, ”he said in a statement at the time.

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