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MLB's Donation to Cindy Hyde-Smith Is Just a Small Part of a Larger, Hidden Scandal

The optics of MLB's donation to Cindy Hyde-Smith are bad, but it's imperative to understand the larger, seamier structure of large political donations.

Americans learned plenty over the weekend about Cindy Hyde-Smith, Mississippi’s junior U.S. Senator, who is running in a special election to finish the term of retired Sen. Thad Cochran. Hyde-Smith, we learned, had not only attended an all-white “seg academy” during the days of integration but had also chosen, far more recently, to send her daughter to a nearly all-white school that had been founded decades prior as another “seg academy.” Hyde-Smith’s attitudes about race had already caused her trouble on the trail; she had made flippant reference to “a public hanging” while campaigning to represent the state where more black Americans were lynched than in any other, and days passed before she offered even a half-apology.

In the course of learning such big secrets about Hyde-Smith, Americans learned a little one about Major League Baseball, courtesy of Saturday’s edition of the Popular Information newsletter: the political action committee (PAC) controlled by the commissioner’s office had donated $5,000 to her campaign. In fact, according to Federal Election Commission records, that check had followed two $2,500 donations earlier in 2018, bringing Hyde-Smith’s total haul from MLB to $10,000.

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By Sunday morning, baseball was on the defensive, noting that "the contribution was made in connection with an event that MLB lobbyists were asked to attend.” The league said it was asking for its money back, as a number of corporate donors to the Hyde-Smith campaign already had, and that it had made the donation before Hyde-Smith’s “public hanging” comment came to light.

Baseball’s excuses bought it hardly any reprieve from the fusillade launched by the Resistance. Some wondered whether the league’s PAC could honestly hand out four-figure checks so easily (to judge by FEC records, yes, indeed, it could) while others viewed the donation as clarifying. Here, for once, in public, went the thinking, was a testament to just how reactionary baseball’s leaders really are. Not helping baseball’s case was the $5,400 Giants owner Charles B. Johnson and his wife, Ann, had donated to Hyde-Smith directly; Johnson’s political contributions had already been under scrutiny after he gave $1,000 to an independent group, Black Americans for the President’s Agenda, that produced a racist ad in an Arkansas U.S. House race.

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Before excoriating the league, though, it’s worth teasing out all the tangles here, or at least trying to. The people complaining about the league’s contributions are doing so because they oppose Hyde-Smith and think she should not be a U.S. Senator. While it’s impossible to know which fraction of her opposition finds her attitudes and remarks and comportment disqualifying and which fraction would consider her partisan affiliation on its own disqualifying, the breakdown doesn’t matter all that much. Whatever its origin, this is straightforward political pressure, intended to call attention to what’s lamentable about a candidate for office on the eve of an election. Here baseball is just a middleman, and an unlucky, albeit unsympathetic, one at that. 

After all, the reason MLB’s PAC gave Cindy Hyde-Smith money is not that commissioner Rob Manfred or top lobbyist Josh Alkin or any team owner particularly wanted to see her elected to a full term in the U.S. Senate. The reason the league gave to her campaign is that she is already in the Senate, and, like her colleagues, she wanted money. In this election cycle alone, MLB sent money to some of the more liberal Senate Democrats (Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Sherrod Brown of Ohio) and some of the more conservative Senate Republicans (Ted Cruz of Texas, John Barrasso of Wyoming, Roger Wicker of Mississippi).

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The popular understanding of the campaign-contributions world focuses on free-spending ideologues (the Kochs, Tom Steyer) and small-dollar-donor types, but corporate PACs like MLB’s play an essential and seamier role. Some contributions connect to specific favorable legislative activity—in this cycle, MLB donated $8,500 to the campaign interests of Rep. Brett Guthrie, the Kentucky Republican who first introduced the Save America’s Pastime Act to exempt minor leaguers from wage-and-hour laws, in 2016—while others are just deposits for whenever the league might find itself in need of a favor. 

Federal disclosures show that the league has recently lobbied Congress on issues as wide-ranging as tax law, drones, relations with Cuba, and gambling. Do you think the league might get a more favorable hearing on its pet issues than America’s working poor do on theirs? One wonders how the Save America’s Pastime Act, which never advanced toward passage in the previous Congress, wound up this past March on page 1,967 of a must-pass appropriations bill guaranteed to enjoy bipartisan support while facing little scrutiny.

The real scandal in any mess like this, as Michael Kinsley once said, is what’s legal. MLB’s contributions are but a rivulet in the unremitting flow of corporate and special-interest money to legislators. But because of everything that Hyde-Smith has gotten wrong and everything that baseball usually gets right, those newly conspicuous contributions are calling attention to just how rotten Washington is. Or so we can hope.

On the matter of how Mississippi is represented in the Senate, its citizens will have the final say Tuesday. Betting markets give Hyde-Smith a 93% chance of defeating her Democratic challenger, Mike Espy. The fight to get corporate money out of politics may face even longer odds. Then again, the Red Sox won have four titles in 15 years. Anything is possible.