Conservative activists said Friday that Target Corp. won't quell the controversy over its corporate donations if the retailer gives in to demands from the left to renounce involvement in political campaigns or to help gay-friendly candidates.
Charlie Weaver, a leader of a political organization supporting a conservative Republican gubernatorial candidate in Minnesota, said the pressure from gays and liberal organizations on Target amounts to "thuggery."
"This is simply an attempt to intimidate companies from doing what the Supreme Court said they're entitled to do, exercise their free speech," said Weaver, treasurer of MN Forward, a campaign group that got $150,000 from Target last month.
A GOP state lawmaker said the controversy, including protests and calls for a boycott by gay leaders, has put Target in a bind.
"They're darned if they do something and they're darned if they don't," said Rep. Marty Seifert, a Republican from Marshall.
Contributors to a conservative Facebook page on the controversy also warned the company of a backlash from the right.
"I will not boycott Target unless they crater to the demand of the gay activists," said one writer. The page grew exponentially on Friday from fewer than 500 fans to more than 9,000 as the controversy moved into its third week.
The conservatives' admonitions come as liberal groups demand that Target balance the earlier donation that helped GOP gubernatorial nominee Tom Emmer, an outspoken critic of gay marriage. Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel's issued a statement of apology last week, and gay and liberal organizations have been negotiating with corporate officials for an equal donation or another concession.
Protesters have kept the pressure on by rallying almost daily outside Target's Minneapolis headquarters or its stores since the donation became known.
The flap has revealed new implications of a recent Supreme Court ruling that appeared to benefit corporations by clearing the way for them to spend company funds directly on political campaigns. Target's donation to a business-oriented group supporting Emmer was one of the first big corporate contributions to come to light after the decision.
The retail chain has gone from defending the donation as a business decision to apologizing and saying it would carefully review its future giving.
"Target is receiving criticism and frustration from their customers because they are doing something wrong, and that should serve absolutely as an example for other companies," said Ilyse Hogue, director of political advocacy for the liberal group MoveOn.org, which is pressing Target to formally renounce involvement in elections.
Criticism has also come from local government officials in San Francisco, one of the urban markets where Target plans to open new stores.
The company is in talks with the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights organization. The group is also demanding donations from electronics retailer Best Buy Co., which gave $100,000 to the same group backing Emmer.
Fred Sainz, the group's vice president for communications, said he is optimistic both companies will respond. Target has long cultivated a good relationship with the gay community in Minneapolis, and its gay employees have protested the political donation.
"The repair has to be consistent with the harm that was done," Sainz said.
MN Forward is staffed by former insiders from Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's administration and has also backed a few Democratic legislators. The group has continued to collect corporate money after the backlash against Target, bringing in $110,000 through Tuesday from businesses including Holiday Cos. gas stations and Graco Inc., a maker of pumps and fluid handling equipment. Weaver said the group's sole focus is job creation, not social issues.
A Target spokeswoman said the company had nothing to add to Steinhafel's statement of apology last week. Emmer has said he views the Target giving as an exercise in free speech and wants to keep his campaign focused on economic issues.
Conservatives are watching to see whether Target bends to the pressure, said Kelly O'Keefe, a brand expert at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va.
"They're likely to raise the ire of a different constituency of customers and get themselves in a never-ending cycle of alienating people," he said. "A better thing is for them to swear off any future investment in elections."