By SIMON D. SCHUSTER
Michigan Campaign Finance Network
LANSING (Nov. 2, 2020) — This is the all-time most expensive election for the Michigan House.
Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN) aggregated campaign spending totals, independent expenditures and broadcast and social media advertising from dark money groups to find at least $32 million has been spent, surpassing 2018’s $27.6 million total. The final total will certainly be higher.
Republicans maintain a nearly $1 million cash advantage heading into Election Day, thanks almost entirely to leadership PACs and the House Republican Campaign Committee, which can accept unlimited and up to $41,975 contributions, respectively. Among those committees they’ve outraised Democrats more than two-to-one, a gap of more than $10 million.
If direct donations to campaigns were the only source of spending, Democratic House candidates would have outraised Republicans by nearly $2.6 million. But of the $16.6 million raised by all candidates, $8.5 million came from PACs, making it the largest source of funding for both parties.
This election, though, a new source of funding has emerged; Democratic candidates have received an astonishing 120,409 donations of $10 or less this cycle, primarily through online donors outside Michigan.
By contrast, Republicans received 213. (Report continues after the break.)
Unprecendented Fundraising From Leadership PACs
The four leadership PACs affiliated with House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) have raised more than $3 million this election cycle, more than any known leadership PAC to date, according to data from the Michigan Department of State analyzed by MCFN. It made him the highest donor to Republican House candidates, at about $533,000, closely followed by the two leadership PACs for the prospective speaker should Republicans retain control of the House, Jason Wentworth, at $424,000. The Devos family remains the largest donor to the House Republican Campaign Committee, which can spend unlimited amounts to support candidates, at slightly more than $1 million.
Nearly a third of the total raised by Chatfield’s PACs has come from the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), a national 527 group which has been involved in state politics for nearly two decades. It’s an extraordinary amount of money even from this group, which has received a total of $500,000 from the Devos family this year, as of the organization’s last filing with the Internal Revenue Service. RSLC did not return a request for comment from MCFN.
The Devos family is also the largest overall donor to Republican House candidates, leadership PACs and the House Republican Campaign Committee combined, at about $1.4 million. Chatfield’s PACs follow closely behind with about $1.3 million contributed, and are the top donors to candidate committees.
Chatfield’s PACs have funneled another $1 million into a relatively new PAC called Working Together For A Better Michigan. While the Chatfield Majority Funds can donate ten times the individual limit directly to campaigns, Working Together is able to independently spend unlimited amounts to directly advocate for a candidate’s election. It is the top independent spender in the state this year, using nearly $900,000 to advertise in favor of Republicans in the most competitive districts. The PAC’s registered recordkeeper, Shannon Huver, did not return MCFN’s requests for comment.
Shri Thanedar would be Democratic candidates' largest donor, if not for the fact that all of the $373,000 he's spent has gone toward his own candidacy in the 3rd district. Instead that role is taken by the leadership PAC of Rep. Donna Lasinkski (D-Scio Twp.), the heir apparent for the speakership should Democrats emerge with a majority. Her PAC has spent nearly $322,000 supporting her current and would-be colleagues, a record for Democrats, who have historically not attracted large donors with leadership PACs as successfully as Republicans.
Three labor unions, the Michigan Educations Association, Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights and United Auto Workers have each given more than $200,000, as has Building Bridges PAC, which is affiliated with Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
View a district breakdown of the each candidate's funding sources below:
A Small-Dollar Influx Reaches Democrats
The disparity in the number of small-dollar donations isn't necessarily because Democratic campaigns are succeeding in ways Republicans haven't — it's largely been outside organizations doing the lifting here. The grassroots momentum that yielded big gains for Democrats nationwide in 2018 has become a well-oiled machine. Activists online are now utilizing the same small-dollar strategies that fueled campaigns like U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid to buoy candidates in down-ballot races.
Still, from a different perspective — donations less than $200 from Michigan — Republicans have received far fewer contributions (about 6,600) than Democrats (more than 35,000 in total) and Democrats have been consistent outpacing their counterparts in this category.
These smallest contributions are still a small minority of the money that has poured into state House races, about 4% of the total among all Democratic candidates. Just six candidates in competitive districts received 80% of all contributions $10 or less. Those donations didn’t make up more than 20% of the fundraising total in any of their campaigns.
Julia Pulver, the Democrat challenging Rep. Ryan Berman (R-Commerce Twp.) in the 39th district has raised the third-most money of any Michigan House candidate this cycle. She’s also received 17,850 donations of $10 or less, about $55,000 at an average contribution of $2.57. Large individual and PAC contributions still make up the majority of her funding.
In an interview with MCFN, Pulver called her success a “national effort” and credited organizations elsewhere utilizing the Democrats’ digital fundraising platform ActBlue.
“It's really heartening to be able to look at these numbers and say, ‘Hey, you know this, this can hopefully be the future of campaign finance,’” Pulver said. “Just like voting, you know, people giving small amounts of money when they can, but doing it en masse, can outmatch the people or at least keep pace with the people who only need a few a dozen rich people in a room and get a big bundle amount of checks and then call it a day.”
Through national activists and social media, thousands have donated to her campaign thanks to her presence on these slates. The vast majority, about 19,900, came from donors outside Michigan. The fact that about 92% of those donations — and a majority of her campaigns' funding — is from out-of-state doesn’t bother Pulver.
“It's hard to make the case that the people in California who've given me $5 are somehow influencing me to do what's best for California and not for Michigan,” she said. “It's very different when you know you have a small group of people who can make or break you financially supporting you. And they're getting their money from who knows who.”
ActBlue allows any person to create personal fundraising pages to support candidates using the platform, and individuals can lump whichever candidates they like together, creating custom slates of candidates where proceeds are evenly split among them.
Pulver said she appeared on slates created by the East Bay Activist Alliance, based in San Francisco, along with other organizations that emerged in response to the election of President Donald Trump. She said the Activist Alliance had been phone banking for her campaign “for months."
WinRed, the Republican counterpart to ActBlue, rolled out a similar ability to create slates in March. President Donald Trump has benefited significantly from small-dollar donations, but the grassroots infrastructure that has begun to aid down-ballot Democrats in Michigan has yet to make across the aisle.