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Trade groups wrestle with supporting GOP lawmakers who embrace Trump's election lie

For dentists, the rupture over Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona played out in a series of spirited public letters, culminating in a decision to suspend donations.
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For some dentists, 2021 has featured a debate more painful than a root canal — whether their prominent professional association should continue donating to Republican Rep. Paul Gosar.

Gosar, of Arizona, is a dentist by trade. He also wholeheartedly embraced former President Donald Trump's lie that the election was stolen from him and led efforts to overturn last fall's vote.

Throughout Gosar's political career, one of his prominent donors has been the American Dental Association's political action committee, which gave more than $100,000 to his campaigns, according to the Federal Election Commission. Whether the group will continue to back Gosar has been hotly contested, with the debate playing out over the last few months in a series of spirited public letters.

It's not just the dentists aching over withholding campaign cash, advisers to trade and professional associations said. The Jan. 6 Capitol riot forced the sprawling network of Washington trade associations, which represent everything from hedge fund managers to construction contractors, to reconsider their checkbooks. These groups donate liberally to members of both parties, typically with little scrutiny, and a member of Congress like Gosar is prized — someone who worked in the profession it represents and has the ability to influence legislation beneficial to the industry.

Some of these groups have since dialed down or stopped donating to the large number of Republican lawmakers who objected to the election results. Others, after a brief pause, have restarted their giving.

In a statement, the ADA said its board of trustees determined its PAC "should suspend future contributions" to Gosar. It has not donated to him so far this cycle, according to filings.

"The ADA believes participation in the political process should reflect its values, ideals and priorities," the group said. "The ADA will support those individuals who advance our mission and are in alignment with those ideals, views and priorities."

According to the most recent filings, ADA PAC in June made $5,000 donations to Reps. Jeff Van Drew, R-N.J., and Brian Babin, R-Texas. Both men, who objected to election results, are dentists by trade. The ADA has made donations to four of five congressional dentists this cycle, excluding Gosar.

Mike Panetta, a political and communications strategist who advises trade industry groups, said that in the past these groups have been successful in convincing their dues-paying members that contributions should not be viewed through a partisan lens, but were instead about targeting lawmakers influential on issues key to the group.

"The message has always been that these donations are mostly nonpartisan and are used to help candidates and members who are supportive of an industry or association," he told NBC News. "That's a message that's much harder to sell after Jan. 6."

An NBC News review of the donating habits of more than 50 of the largest trade and professional groups from mid-January through the end of May found that about 20 percent of those organizations' PACs have made at least one contribution to a Republican objector or group boosting an objector's campaign.

The group that NBC News found to have made the most of these contributions is the National Association of Realtors PAC. From mid-March through late May, the PAC has contributed more than $260,000 to GOP objectors and groups backing their re-elections as part of donations made across the political spectrum. The organization has directly contributed to roughly 40 percent of those who voted against the election results in January.

"RPAC is proud to be one of the largest, most bipartisan political action committees in the country and will continue to engage in a bipartisan way on behalf of our 1.4 million members," NAR spokesman Wes Shaw told NBC News in a statement. "Following a recent meeting of the RPAC Board of Trustees, our association lifted the temporary pause that was previously put in place on all federal political disbursements. This decision will ensure we continue to engage with political candidates in an effort to support America’s homeowners and our nation’s real estate industry."

Another group that has revived donations to the objectors is the National Apartment Association, which has contributed to nine of the objectors from late March through late May.

"To help tackle the nation’s housing affordability crisis, NAA maintains a singular focus on the substantive policy concerns that impact our members and our political support is extended to those members of Congress who understand and support our perspective," NAA President and CEO Bob Pinnegar said in a statement. "While sound housing policy remains our primary rationale for support, we evaluate each contribution on a case-by-case basis."

For the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, long one of the most prolific donors in Washington, a post-riot review of its donation policy ended with a March announcement that it would not necessarily bar contributions to election objectors going forward. Since that announcement, it has donated to Reps. Stephanie Bice of Oklahoma and Steve Chabot of Ohio, both Republicans who objected to results.

While a much smaller number of Democrats have objected to past elections, those efforts did not come amid the backdrop of a president seeking to overturn an election he lost — or occur simultaneously with a deadly riot that temporarily disrupted the formalization of his political rival's victory.

"Going forward, the Chamber will evaluate our support for candidates — Republicans and Democrats — based on their position on issues important to the Chamber, as well as their demonstrated commitment to governing and rebuilding our democratic institutions," Ashlee Rich Stephenson, the Chamber's senior political strategist, wrote in a memo to members. "We do not believe it is appropriate to judge members of Congress solely based on their votes on the electoral certification."

The Chamber sought to draw a distinction between those who voted along with the majority of House Republicans to object to the results and those who have continued to promote falsehoods about Trump's defeat.

"There is a meaningful difference between a member of Congress who voted no on the question of certifying the votes of certain states and those who engaged and continue to engage in repeated actions that undermine the legitimacy of our elections and institutions," she wrote. "For example, casting a vote is different than organizing the rally of January 6th or continuing to push debunked conspiracy theories. We will take into consideration actions such as these and future conduct that erodes our democratic institutions."

Corporations, meanwhile, have borne the brunt of the donor scrutiny after Jan. 6, coming under significant public pressure to cut off PAC donations to those who voted against the results. Earlier this month, the Japanese automaker Toyota announced it would stop contributing to lawmakers who objected to the 2020 results after catching heat for donating to 38 such Republican members. But as recent filings showed, other corporations have resumed contributing to these officials.

As to whether the current scrutiny is a blip on the radar or leads to a permanent change in the donor landscape, Panetta, the strategist, said his "gut reaction" is that there will be a return to the old normal.

"If you look at the number of the members of the House and the Senate [who voted to object], and if you completely ignore them, it's a big chunk," he said. "So I do feel like this will eventually normalize itself. I think there'll be certain members who are more toxic than others. But I think overall, it will return to more normalcy at some point."

Given the number of lawmakers who objected, including members of leadership, a former GOP congressional aide who advises corporations and industry groups echoed Panetta in predicting that most will be back on board before long.

"The problem, really, for all of them is that such a broad swath of the House Republican conference voted the wrong way," this person said. "And you have, almost regardless of the corporation or industry or association, you're going to have key members, key Republicans on your issues, who unfortunately voted to decertify the election."

CORRECTION (July 26, 1:31 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the source of a donation to Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey in late January. It was made by an individual, not the American Dental Political Action Committee, which processed the donation. That statement has been removed from the article.