By CRAIG MAUGER
Michigan Campaign Finance Network
LANSING (Feb. 21, 2019) — One member of West Michigan’s DeVos family vowed to stop making political contributions in 2017 as she became U.S. secretary of education. But contributions from her relatives to candidates and groups continued.
So many contributions continued that the DeVos family kept its spot as the top political-spending family in Michigan ahead of the 2018 election, according to an analysis of fundraising disclosures by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN).
DeVos family members combined to make about $11.3 million in political contributions from the start of 2017 to the end of 2018. MCFN tracked political giving at the state level in Michigan that was reported to the secretary of state, political giving at the federal level that was reported to the Federal Election Commission and political giving to some large groups that file disclosures with the Internal Revenue Service.
The second most active political spending family or individual in Michigan ahead of the 2018 election was Shri Thanedar, a Democrat who self-funded his campaign for governor. He gave his campaign a net total of about $10.4 million. When it comes to donors who weren’t on the ballot themselves, the second most active spenders from Michigan were Ron and Eileen Weiser, who spent $2.1 million, a fraction of the $11.3-million DeVos total.
The wide majority of the DeVos family’s spending benefited groups that support only Republican candidates. About $4.5 million of the family's total went to groups active at the state level in Michigan, meaning the money likely focused on Michigan's races for governor, attorney general, secretary of state and the Legislature.
About $4.6 million of the total went to groups active at the federal level, meaning that money likely focused on races for the U.S. House or the U.S. Senate, according to the analysis.
The other $2.1 million went to the Republican Governors Association or the Republican State Leadership Committee, two groups that were active in Michigan in 2018 but were also active elsewhere across the country.
In the state of Michigan, DeVos family members were the primary funders of two active PACs: the Great Lakes Education Project; and the Michigan Freedom Network. The Great Lakes Education Project, also known as GLEP, supports expanding school choice. The Michigan Freedom Network often supports free-market economic policies.
DeVos family members gave $400,000 to the Great Lakes Education Project PAC and $250,000 to the Michigan Freedom Network PAC, according to disclosures. The DeVos family was responsible for all of the contributions to the GLEP PAC over the two-year period and was responsible for the majority of the contributions to the Freedom Network PAC.
GLEP spent nearly a quarter of its money in three Republican state Senate primaries involving GOP members of the state House running against one another, according to disclosures.
The group spent $37,472 to benefit then-Rep. Jim Tedder in his race against then-Rep. Mike McCready in the Oakland County-based 12th District, $32,047 to benefit then-Rep. Kim LaSata against then-Rep. Dave Pagel in southwest Michigan’s 21st District and $22,360 to benefit then-Rep. Tom Barrett in his race against then-Rep. Brett Roberts in mid-Michigan’s 24th District.
Pagel previously served as a school board member and had been quoted in multiple national media reports about the influence of Betsy DeVos and her family around the time of her nomination for secretary of education. He told The New York Times that he considered voting for one of the bills backed by groups connected to the DeVos family “the worst vote I’ve made.”
In an interview after the primary last year, Pagel said he didn’t expect the spending that came against him in 2018, which he described as “pretty brutal.”
“I got to the point that I didn’t want to look at them myself,” Pagel said.
Pagel lost the primary race to LaSata. Tedder lost to McCready. And Barrett won both the primary and general election races.
A spokesperson for the DeVos family didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. An employee of the Great Lakes Education Project didn’t respond to requests for an interview.
In addition to giving to PACs, the DeVos family also helped candidates for the Michigan Legislature by giving to the House Republican Campaign Committee and the Senate Republican Campaign Committee. Those committees financially back GOP candidates for the Michigan Legislature in competitive general election races. DeVos family members gave $440,000 to each of the committees, according to disclosures.
Then, there’s the family’s direct support of candidates. At the state level, family members directly supported the Republican nominees for governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state and attorney general. They also directly contributed to the campaigns of 32 GOP state House candidates and 16 GOP state Senate candidates, according to disclosures.
Most of the state House candidates received at least $5,000. Most of the Senate candidates received at least $10,000.
Of the 32 state House candidates, 25 are now members of the state House. Of the 16 state Senate candidates, 11 are now members of the state Senate.
DeVos family members made more total contributions ahead of the 2016 election than they did ahead of the 2018 election, according to MCFN’s tracking. In 2015 and 2016, family members made about $15 million in contributions, according to MCFN’s tracking.
However, of that $15-million total, the majority, $11.6 million, went the federal level with dollars going to groups involved in the 2016 presidential race.
Family members’ spending at the federal level dropped in 2017 and 2018, but their spending at the state level, where there was a race for governor in 2018, grew from $3.4 million over 2015 and 2016 to $4.5 million over 2017 and 2018.
The DeVos family’s heavy spending on politics gained national attention in early 2017, after President Donald Trump nominated Betsy DeVos to be U.S. secretary of education.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, questioned Betsy DeVos about DeVos family political giving during a hearing on her nomination in January 2017.
”If you are confirmed, I want to know if you believe it’s appropriate for you and your family to continue to use its wealth to pressure state, local and federal candidates to support your agenda?” she asked.
Betsy DeVos responded, “Senator, if I am confirmed, as you know, I will not be involved in or engaged in political contributions. And my husband will not be, either.”
While Dick DeVos has cut back his giving on the federal level, he has continued to make contributions at the state level, according to disclosures.