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Money Can’t Buy Everything, Comcast Learns as Deal Implodes

It’s pricy, long-term investment in President Obama and Democrats has fallen flat.

Tom Saga/Shutterstock

Around midnight on Saturday, hundreds of formally attired White House Correspondents Dinner partygoers will arrive for MSNBC’s annual “After Party” — a lavish, hours-long affair where the champagne flows and MSNBC host Rachel Maddow sometimes tends bar.

msnbc party invite

It’s likely to be a pretty grim event for Comcast* executives and lobbyists this year, after the company bowed to the inevitable on Friday and killed its $45 billion deal to acquire Time Warner Cable.

That defeat — coming just a few weeks after the Federal Communications Commission ignored Comcast’s protests and approved tough new net neutrality rules on Internet providers — has shattered whatever fear remained about Comcast’s vaunted lobbying operation.

In some ways, Comcast’s failed bid to acquire Time Warner Cable represents a lost bet by Comcast senior management that wooing Democratic lawmakers — including President Obama — with campaign contributions and fundraising help would make them more amenable to the company’s efforts to have its way in Washington.

It certainly seemed to work in 2011, when the FCC and Justice Department signed off on Comcast’s deal to acquire NBCUniversal with relatively minor conditions.

Democrats are generally less inclined to approve major industry consolidating deals than Republicans and the Obama administration’s Justice Department has certainly shown its willingness to block deals — most notably AT&T’s failed $39 billion bid to buy T-Mobile. But while some Republicans questioned the government’s move to block that deal, they showed notably less concern about Comcast’s floundering Time Warner Cable deal.

New Consumers Union newspaper ad.
A Consumers Union ad opposing the Comcast/Time Warner Cable deal.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts’ golf game could have something to do with it.

Comcast’s corporate PAC contributions to congressional candidates were roughly equal between Republicans and Democrats in 2014. But the close ties between senior Comcast executives and Democrats haven’t gone unnoticed by Republicans.

Comcast executive vice president David Cohen, a former Democratic political operative in Philadelphia, has been a tireless fundraiser for Democrats — including President Obama, who joked in 2013 that he had been to Cohen’s house so often that “the only thing I haven’t done in this house is have Seder dinner.”

Roberts has historically given more money to Democrats than Republicans, according to data collected the Center for Responsive Politics. In 2013, he joined President Obama for golf near his vacation house on Martha’s Vineyard.

Despite Comcast lobbyists’ efforts, however, they weren’t able to muster much support on Capitol Hill or in the White House. Minnesota Senator Al Franken, a Democrat, had until recently been the lone voice calling for the Comcast deal to be killed — other lawmakers mostly stayed on the sidelines. (Both of Pennsylvania’s senators did call for regulators to approve the deal for the Philadelphia-based cable giant.)

Perhaps more damaging, however, was the effort by the White House to distance itself from Comcast executives after the November 2014 election. Within days, President Obama announced that he supported tough net neutrality rules, a move that gave FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler plenty of political cover to buck Comcast, AT&T and other Internet providers.

Notably, White House officials didn’t appear to give Comcast’s CEO a heads up that they were about to come out in favor of tough net neutrality rules, even after he reportedly lobbied senior advisor Valerie Jarrett to reject that approach at the last minute after Comcast lobbyists heard rumors about the plan.

Comcast doesn’t have to pay a breakup fee to Time Warner Cable, but it is still out tens of millions of dollars, a lot of wasted time and a loss of political reputation.

The company has run what sometimes seemed like daily full-page ads in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and local Capitol Hill newspapers to promote the deal for much of the past year. There have been countless radio ads on local Washington radio stations and TV spots during Sunday morning talk shows.

The Philadelphia cable giant spent $4.62 million in the first quarter of 2015 on lobbying after spending $17.02 million last year, federal campaign finance records show. It ranked eighth last year among companies and trade associations, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks lobbying and campaign donations.

If nothing else, however, Comcast’s failed deal showed there are limits to what lobbyists, presidential golf games and opulent Washington parties can do for a company that’s been voted the Worst Company in America twice.

Comcast lobbyists may be drowning their sorrows Saturday night. But current or former customers — particularly anyone who’s struggled with Comcast’s notoriously awful customer service department — aren’t likely to be joining them.

* Comcast owns NBCUniversal, which is a minority investor in Revere Digital, Re/code’s parent company.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.