DeSantis urges state investment manager to consider lawsuit against parent company Bud Light

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is urging the state’s pension fund manager to consider legal action against parent company Bud Light amid a backlash from conservatives over the beer maker’s recent marketing efforts, the Republican presidential candidate’s latest attempt to embroil himself and the state he rules in the country’s culture wars.

In a letter obtained by CNN on Thursday, DeSantis suggests that AB InBev “violated its legal obligations to its shareholders” when it decided to join “radical social ideologies.” Bud Light’s sales plummeted in months after the company entered into a minor partnership with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney, prompting a conservative boycott.

“All options are being discussed,” DeSantis wrote as the state analyzes the impact of AB InBev’s recent financial crisis, although it is unclear what legal remedies the state may have to challenge the multinational’s business decisions.

“We must wisely manage the funds of Florida’s hardworking law enforcement, teachers, firefighters, and first responders in a way that focuses on growing returns, rather than subsidizing the ideological agenda through awakened virtue signals,” DeSantis wrote in a letter to Lamar Taylor, acting director of the State Administrative Board, the state agency that manages Florida’s state employee pension funds. DeSantis oversees the board as a trustee, along with the state’s attorney general and chief financial officer, both also Republicans.

Speaking to Fox News Thursday night about the letter, DeSantis said the state could consider a “derivative lawsuit” against AB InBev. Derivative claims are filed by shareholders on behalf of the company against directors or officers of the corporation who allege a breach of duty.

CNN has reached out to AB InBev for comment.

At the end of March, the Florida pension fund owned more than 682,000 AB InBev shares, which at the time were valued at nearly $46 million. Since then, the company’s share price has fallen from $66 a share to $58, though it’s still above a 52-week low of $44 since September 2022, well before the company’s recent controversy.

This is not the first time DeSantis has threatened to use Florida’s $235 billion pension investment as a cudgel in his political battles with corporate America. In early 2022, he threatened to hold Twitter’s shareholders accountable if they didn’t sell the social network to Tesla CEO Elon Musk. Later that year, DeSantis pushed the state’s pension board to pass new rules barring its investors from considering a company’s or fund’s environmental and social benefits when deciding where to invest Florida’s pension assets, countering the so-called ESG movement.

DeSantis’ latest salvo against what he calls “awakened capitalism” also follows his high-profile clashes with another corporate titan, The Walt Disney Company, over the company’s objections to a state law that limits the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. DeSantis and Disney are currently involved in two separate lawsuits over a Republican attempt to strip the theme park giant of its longtime special government powers in Central Florida.

Asked by Fox’s Jesse Watters if DeSantis would consider taking similar action against Disney, DeSantis said, “I’m not sure we would be the right ones to do it.” As of March 31, the Florida Pension Fund held $234 million worth of Disney stock.

Unlike his war with Disney, the conservative outrage against AB InBev was long before DeSantis decided to take action against the Belgian beer maker. Right-wing influencers and celebrities have facilitated massive boycotts of the company’s flagship brand, Bud Light, after it sponsored Mulvaney, a trans advocate known on TikTok for his playful and positive posts. She ran a brief digital ad for the company for the NCAA March Madness this year, and the brand sent her a personalized jar with her face.

Amid the aftermath in May, Modelo Especial became the best-selling beer in May, displacing Bud Light from the top spot it had held for more than two decades, according to NIQ data provided to consulting firm Bump Williams. In June, Modelo Especial accounted for 8.7% of total beer sales compared to Bud Light’s 7% share.

According to data provided by Williams, Bud Light’s dollar sales have recently fallen by about 25% from a year ago.

Sales fell despite the company’s attempts to distance itself from the controversy.

“We never intended to engage in discussions that divide people. We are in the business of bringing people together over a glass of beer,” AB CEO Brendan Whitworth said in an April 14 statement. Shortly after the release of the statement, the company said that two vice presidents of marketing went on vacation.

Whitworth later laid out a plan to bail out its wholesalers to make up for falling sales and, among other things, reimburse distributor truck fuel costs.

Bud Light’s summer ad campaign includes collaborations with country artists and new ads featuring NFL players. A recent 60-second video shows people enjoying Bud Light despite facing some of summer’s biggest pain points, like a sunburn or a sudden thunderstorm while cooking.

However, DeSantis’ actions on Thursday showed that the Republicans are not ceasing to use the company as a punching bag as they seek to win favor with the party base. The action against Bud Light also served as another reminder that DeSantis, as incumbent governor, can use state power to weigh in on issues of concern to Republican voters, an advantage he has over a 2024 primary that includes many people not currently in office, including his archrival, former President Donald Trump.

By charting a course in the middle, Bud Light has lost credibility among members of the LGBTQ+ community, who are dismayed at how the brand is handling the backlash over its minor partnership with Mulvaney. Because of this, Bud Light has not benefited from a so-called buying campaign that can help bolster sales when brands face boycott calls.

Earlier this year, DeSantis praised conservative consumers for boycotting the company, telling right-wing podcaster Benny Johnson, “I’m never drinking Bud again.”

“Corporate America is trying to change our country, trying to change politics, trying to change culture. And, you know, I’d rather have “we the people” run the companies, DeSantis said in an interview. “And so I think opposition is appropriate across the board, including with Bud Light.”

The boycott’s durability remains to be seen. DeSantis, for example, told Johnson that he and his wife prefer different beers: “We actually like the stout, Guinness.”

However, a decade ago, an Irish beer brand became the target of conservative ire when it withdrew its sponsorship of New York’s St. Patrick’s Day due to its exclusion of LGBTQ groups. In response, the Catholic League called for a boycott of Guinness.

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