By CRAIG MAUGER
Michigan Campaign Finance Network
LANSING — They’ll spend millions of dollars later this year to influence voters and to support their preferred candidates. And it appears they’ll have more money available than ever before to do it. They are Michigan’s political action committees, commonly known as PACs.
The Michigan Campaign Finance Network has been tracking their fundraising reports for about two decades, and going into 2018, a pivotal election year, they’re on pace to collect a record amount of money, according to new disclosures.
The top 150 PACs in Michigan reported raising $24.3 million in 2017, an off-year leading up to the 2018 election year when voters will choose a new governor, a new attorney general, a new secretary of state and candidates to fill all 148 seats in the state Legislature.
In 2015, the off-year before the 2016 election, the top 150 PACs raised only $20.1 million. The 2017 number is up 20 percent over that 2015 number. The 2016 election didn’t include races for governor, attorney general, secretary of state or the entire Michigan state Senate.
PACs are usually tied to businesses, labor unions, lawmakers or other interest groups. They can raise large amounts of money from donors and then, give the money to candidates or causes or spend it independently to directly try to sway voters. Among the top 10 PACs in the state were the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters, Blue Cross Blue Shield and the Michigan Realtors.
In previous election cycles before 2016, state law didn’t always require PACs to file disclosures in January covering through the end of the off-year. However, the top PACs’ fundraising total for 2017 easily beats the totals posted for similar periods in the past.
Before the state’s last gubernatorial election, the top 150 PACs raised only $22.2 million between Jan. 1, 2013, and Feb. 10, 2014. The 2017 total, which covers 41 fewer days, is up 9 percent over that number. The 2014 election went on to bring the second most expensive gubernatorial race in state history.
The most expensive gubernatorial race in state history came in 2006. Contributions from businessman Dick DeVos, a Republican, to his own campaign helped drive up the cost of his race against incumbent Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Between Jan. 1, 2005, and April 20, 2006 — a period nearly four months longer than the 2017 period — the top 150 PACs raised $23.1 million.
A full list of the top 150 PACs in fundraising for 2017 is available at this link.
The PACs’ campaign finance disclosures point to three trends that are helping drive up the overall fundraising number.
For one trend, Super PACs, which can raise money directly from corporations unlike traditional PACs, are becoming more active. The 2017 list of the top 150 PACs includes 16 Super PACs. The 2015 list included only 11 Super PACs. The list that covered from Jan. 1, 2013, through Feb. 10, 2014, included only seven Super PACs.
The top Super PACs in 2017 were Turnaround Detroit, which supported Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan in his re-election campaign, and Better Jobs Stronger Families, which is supporting Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette for governor. Turnaround Detroit raised $957,550 in 2017, and Better Jobs Stronger Families raised $536,559.
In 2017, the state Legislature enacted a new law setting guidelines for Super PACs, which are supposed to act independently of candidates. The law allows candidates to personally solicit unlimited contributions for Super PACs that may support the candidates and allows Super PACs to share certain consultants with candidates’ campaigns.
Another trend driving up the overall fundraising numbers is the growing strength of caucus committees. The four caucus committees raise money on behalf of the four legislative caucuses — Senate Republicans, Senate Democrats, House Republicans and House Democrats — and focus the money on the most competitive races.
The four caucus committees have been stockpiling a record amount of money, and all four raised more money in 2017 than they did in 2015. Some of the fundraising success is because of the Legislature’s vote in 2013 to double campaign contributions across the board. For caucus committees, donors are now allowed to give $40,000 a year instead of just $20,000.
The third trend is leadership PACs are raising more money than before. Leadership PACs are PACs connected to individual public officials. The officials raise money for their PACs and use the money to support like-minded candidates or causes and to advance their rank within the Legislature.
The top five leadership PACs connected to an individual state lawmaker combined to raise $1.47 million in 2017. In 2015, the top five leadership PACs raised just $1.02 million.
Between Jan. 1, 2013, and Feb. 10, 2014, the top five leadership PACs raised just $532,620, well below half of the 2017 total.
When it comes to leadership PAC fundraising, money tends to follow power. And for 2017, two Republican lawmakers who are the favorites to control the House and the Senate after the 2018 election had the largest individual leadership PACs.
Sen. Mike Shirkey’s Compete Michigan reported raising $435,341 in 2017. If Republicans retain control of the Michigan Senate, many expect Shirkey, a Republican from Clarklake, to be the next Senate majority leader.
Compete Michigan’s top donors for the year were members of DeVos family, who gave $50,000, Autocam Executive John Kennedy, who gave $40,000, and Meridian Health Executive Jon Cotton, who gave $25,000.
Rep. Lee Chatfield’s Chatfield Majority Fund reported raising $341,175 in 2017. If Republicans retain control of the Michigan House, many expect Chatfield, a Republican from Levering, to be the next House speaker.
Chatfield Majority Fund’s top donors for 2017 were Cotton, who gave $30,000, members of the DeVos family, who gave $25,000, and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce PAC, which gave $20,000.
The other individual leadership PACs that raised the most money in 2017 were Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof’s Moving Michigan Forward Fund I, which raised $333,449, House Speaker Tom Leonard’s Michigan Values Leadership Fund, which raised $187,510, and Sen. Jim Stamas’s Stamas Leadership Fund, which raised $181,850. Both Meekhof and Leonard have multiple leadership PACs.