Why Republicans Can’t Stop Eating Chick-Fil-A

Congressional Republicans can’t get enough of the chicken sandwiches.

Robert Neubecker
March 13, 2015, 12:42 a.m.

After the State of the Uni­on speech in Janu­ary, Sen. Lisa Murkowski pressed past the phalanx of shout­ing re­port­ers in Statu­ary Hall and snaked her way through the Cap­it­ol to­ward the Sen­ate cham­ber and a smal­ler, quieter gaggle of re­port­ers. It was nearly mid­night on a long day that had also fea­tured the year’s first meet­ing of the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee, whose help Murkowski will need in her 2016 reelec­tion bid; in 2010, the Alaska Re­pub­lic­an lost the GOP nom­in­a­tion and had to mount a write-in cam­paign to keep her seat. But when I asked her what had happened at the NR­SC meet­ing, the sen­at­or’s mind went not to strategy and fun­drais­ing, but to food. “It was Chick-fil-A! We al­ways have Chick-fil-A!” she com­plained. “I don’t mind Chick-fil-A every now and again, but you know, here’s my deal: I’m really try­ing to eat health­i­er. I don’t know what they coat that Chick-fil-A stuff in.”

(RE­LATED: Di­et­ary Pan­el: Eat­ing Less Meat is Bet­ter for the En­vir­on­ment)

Since 2012, when the At­lanta-based fried-chick­en chain came un­der fire for donat­ing mil­lions to groups fight­ing same-sex mar­riage — and CEO Dan Cathy de­clared that re­de­fin­ing mar­riage was “in­vit­ing God’s judg­ment on our na­tion” — Chick-fil-A has be­come con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans’ fast food of choice, a cul­ture-war state­ment on a bun. When former Arkan­sas Gov. Mike Hucka­bee or­gan­ized a “Chick-fil-A Ap­pre­ci­ation Day” that Au­gust, de­fy­ing lib­er­al boy­cotts, Cap­it­ol Hill con­ser­vat­ives en­thu­si­ast­ic­ally joined in, filling con­fer­ence rooms with chick­en nug­gets and tweet­ing pho­tos of them­selves at Chick-fil-A drive-ins.

Two and a half years later, the scent of fried chick­en prac­tic­ally per­meates the walls of the Cap­it­ol. Tea-party mem­bers in the House nosh on ori­gin­al chick­en sand­wiches and waffle fries at the Her­it­age Found­a­tion’s monthly “Con­ver­sa­tions with Con­ser­vat­ives.” Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham of South Car­o­lina, a long­time Chick-fil-A afi­cion­ado, has the chain cater his birth­day lunch party every year. Dur­ing late-night GOP strategy ses­sions in the Sen­ate ahead of a po­ten­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down in Decem­ber, Chick-fil-A was the hun­ger-re­liev­er of choice. And while Speak­er John Boehner prefers a glass of red wine and Itali­an dishes served al­fresco at Trat­tor­ia Al­berto, his of­fice has dropped hun­dreds on Chick-fil-A fare in the last few years — though Boehner spokes­man Mi­chael Steel says he’s nev­er seen the speak­er him­self in­dulge. (Steel would not com­ment fur­ther.)

(RE­LATED: Why Some GOP Pres­id­en­tial Hope­fuls Are Stay­ing Quiet About Gay Mar­riage)

“They kinda got ab­used,” says Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Jeff Ses­sions of Alabama, “and I guess some would like to sup­port ‘em.” Evid­ently so: Since Cathy made his con­tro­ver­sial com­ments, House Re­pub­lic­ans have spent nearly $13,000 in tax­pay­er money or­der­ing Chick-fil-A, ac­cord­ing to ex­pendit­ure re­ports filed through Ju­ly 2014 (the latest avail­able). That’s the equi­val­ent of 3,900 ori­gin­al chick­en sand­wiches, and it rep­res­ents a 37-fold in­crease over the paltry $345 the House GOP had spent on Chick-fil-A the pre­vi­ous three years. (It also may be an un­der­count, since some re­ceipts say only “food and bever­age” without spe­cify­ing a source.) Fig­ures for the Sen­ate were not avail­able, but the GOP’s cam­paign arms have been eat­ing “mor chikin” as well: The Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee has doubled its Chick-fil-A spend­ing, while the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee spends more than 10 times as much as it used to.

Demo­crats, on the oth­er hand, have dialed back their Chick-fil-A spend­ing sig­ni­fic­antly. The Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee hasn’t spent a dime on Chick-fil-A since May 2012 — and even then, it was for a single $6 meal. In a sign that Chick-fil-A re­mains a sens­it­ive polit­ic­al top­ic, the of­fices of the two Demo­crat­ic rep­res­ent­at­ives who’ve placed an or­der since the gay-mar­riage flap — Reps. John Con­yers of Michigan and Terri Sewell of Alabama — both de­clined mul­tiple re­quests to com­ment for this story.

Sev­er­al House Re­pub­lic­an staffers strenu­ously denied that cul­tur­al polit­ics was at the root of the mem­bers’ eat­ing habits. Re­pub­lic­an groups like Her­it­age, they poin­ted out, have been Chick-fil-A ad­dicts for a dec­ade. “It’s not served as some type of polit­ic­al state­ment,” House Budget Com­mit­tee spokes­man Will Al­lis­on told me by email. “It’s just tasty and I guess easy to or­der in bulk. They’re also great cor­por­ate cit­izens — not open on Sundays, so em­ploy­ees have the day off, and ter­rif­ic cus­tom­er ser­vice.”

(RE­LATED: The Four States the Su­preme Court Wants to Hear From on Gay Mar­riage)

Pla­cing an or­der might in­deed be a snap, but the de­liv­ery pro­cess is not. Al­though the Cap­it­ol is sur­roun­ded by dozens of res­taur­ants that cater, there is only one Chick-fil-A fran­chise in Wash­ing­ton, a small out­post at Cath­ol­ic Uni­versity that doesn’t de­liv­er. To get their bosses a fix, Hill staffers have to or­der from out­lets in Mary­land and Vir­gin­ia — of­ten from a tiny, dimly lit food court 8 miles away in Ball­ston, Vir­gin­ia, where Jeff Burke, a jovi­al 51-year-old with a white mus­tache, op­er­ates a Chick-fil-A fran­chise that’s been churn­ing out food for Re­pub­lic­an groups for more than a dec­ade.

To get the chick­en to hungry Re­pub­lic­ans still hot, Burke and his team of more than 40 em­ploy­ees have just 30 to 45 minutes to take raw chick­en breasts and strips, coat them in eggs, milk, and the brand’s spe­cial bread­ing (there’s your an­swer, Sen. Murkowski), fry them up, and then drive their own cars the 8 miles to Cap­it­ol Hill — where, un­able to get through se­cur­ity, they pass the still-steam­ing bags to con­gres­sion­al staffers, some­times in the middle of the street.

“They love us on the Hill,” Burke says. “You’d think it’s just where we’re at — you know, Geor­gia, South Car­o­lina. But we’re get­ting these del­eg­ates from all over the coun­try, even when we’re not in their states yet.” It all star­ted with Her­it­age — which still or­ders once or twice even in a “slow week,” he says — and then spread across the Cap­it­ol by word of mouth. Burke, who is not much for polit­ics, says most of the time he has no idea which party his cus­tom­ers be­long to. “I’ll do Lamar Al­ex­an­der,” he says, “but I don’t even know which side of the aisle he sits on. I’ve nev­er thought about that, which side’s en­joy­ing us the most.” The ques­tion re­minds him of one of the com­pany’s old ads, he says with a laugh: “Chick­en’s not right-wing or left-wing.” But he al­lows that the com­pany’s Chris­ti­an ori­ent­a­tion, sym­bol­ized by its de­cision to stay closed on Sundays, is prob­ably a factor. “It’s im­port­ant to me be­cause I get a day off,” he jokes.

Burke used to run a second fran­chise in Al­ex­an­dria, Vir­gin­ia, the one that caters Gra­ham’s birth­day parties. “Lind­sey,” as he calls him, would send Burke a photo with a note as a thank-you, and Burke would re­spond with a gift of his own — a mug or oth­er Chick-fil-A trinket as a birth­day gift for the sen­at­or. Sadly, Burke says, the two have nev­er met, but based on their cor­res­pond­ence, he be­lieves they are “kindred spir­its.” “I don’t know if we ever met that we’d be best friends, or any­thing like that,” Burke says. “But if he needed a good chick­en sand­wich, I know where he can get one.”

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