Miracle-Gro donation planting seed of change?

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WASHINGTON -- In an election year filled with secret campaign money, the Scotts Miracle-Gro Company has made the unlikely choice to go public with a big political donation.

The company -- under chairman and chief executive James Hagedorn, of Sands Point -- is familiar as the producer of a ubiquitous plant fertilizer. But it is now a political player, donating $200,000 in June to the Restore Our Future super PAC supporting Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

That makes Miracle-Gro among the first public companies with well-known consumer brands to publicly enter the new world of campaign funding. That world has been reshaped by the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which allowed direct corporate spending on election campaigns.

Spending by interest groups active in the presidential race has risen dramatically as a result of that landmark ruling. But the vast majority of donors that have been publicly disclosed are rich individuals and private companies that don't have much to lose by aligning with a political party because they don't mass-market brand products to consumers who might disagree with the contributions.

Hagedorn made the choice to support Romney with company funds, said Jim King, a senior vice president at the Ohio-based company. The company's lobbyists presented Hagedorn with options for contributing in the presidential race, including ways to keep the company's name private.

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"His point of view was, 'If I'm going to do it, I'm going to do it in the light of day,' " said King, who spoke for the company.

At the time of the Supreme Court's decision, Democrats and their allies warned that it could lead to large companies with billions in quarterly profits unleashing their massive bank accounts on political campaigns. So far, big public companies have been shy about taking advantage of the looser restrictions.

The current corporate hesitancy to donate publicly stems in part from the experience of Target Corp. in 2010. After donating to support a Minnesota gubernatorial candidate who opposed gay marriage, Target faced a nationwide boycott.

Miracle-Gro would benefit from a Romney presidency, King said, citing the Republican's policies on corporate tax reform, business regulation and federal spending, and the belief that Romney could revive a weak economy.

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