Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, has long argued that corporate campaign donations are a protected, nearly sacred, form of political communication. On Tuesday he made the case that business executives might be better off limiting their free speech to writing checks.
In recent days, Mr. McConnell, the minority leader, has lashed out at executives with Major League Baseball, Coca-Cola, Delta and other corporations for criticizing Republican-led efforts to impose restrictions on voting access in Georgia and other states, accusing them of “bullying” politicians.
Mr. McConnell went even further on Tuesday, speaking in his home state during an extended back-and-forth with reporters.
“My warning, if you will, to corporate America is to stay out of politics,” said Mr. McConnell, after an appearance promoting vaccine distribution in Louisville. “It’s not what you’re designed for. And don’t be intimidated by the left into taking up causes that put you right in the middle of America’s greatest political debates.”
When asked to define the activities that executives should avoid, he responded, “I’m not talking about political contributions.”
Brian Fallon, a former top aide to Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic majority leader, said Mr. McConnell’s comments reflect the struggle of a once-powerful leader trying to find his way following his loss of the Senate majority and a break with former President Donald J. Trump over the Jan. 6 riot.
“The earth is shifting under his feet,” said Mr. Fallon, who now runs a group opposed to Mr. McConnell’s judicial nominations. “He’s criticizing corporations for wading into political debates after years of defending their right to spend unlimited sums on political campaigns. This is a guy used to calling the shots, but he is suddenly powerless and flailing.”
People close to Mr. McConnell say he is simply pointing out the political perils of business leaders jumping into partisan debates, even though he has often touted the support of corporate leaders for his efforts to cut taxes and regulation.
Mr. McConnell told reporters he was not implying business leaders did not have the right to express themselves, but suggested the best way to communicate was by contributing money to campaigns.
“Republicans,” he said, “drink Coca-Cola too, and we fly.”
Companies and sports leagues were “not very smart” to weigh in on the voting bills, he said.
And M.L.B.’s decision to pull the All-Star Game out of Atlanta in protest of the Georgia law, he added, was “irritating one whole hell of a lot of Republican fans.”
Mr. McConnell was one of the leading opponents of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law that restricted spending by corporations and unions, challenging it in court nearly two decades ago.
And he celebrated the landmark Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court that struck it down in 2010, a decision that asserted corporations had similar free speech rights to individuals.
“For too long, some in this country have been deprived of full participation in the political process. With today’s monumental decision, the Supreme Court took an important step in the direction of restoring the First Amendment rights of these groups,” he said in a statement at the time.