By CRAIG MAUGER
Michigan Campaign Finance Network
LANSING (March 11, 2019) — Less than two weeks after Attorney General Bill Schuette loudly launched his campaign for governor at a barbecue in September 2017, a group of his supporters more quietly filed paperwork to form a super PAC.
Better Jobs, Stronger Families became one of the first candidate-focused super PACs in any race for Michigan governor. It helped Schuette win the Republican nomination. And it raised about $2.7 million over 2017 and 2018 with some donors giving more than $200,000 individually.
Its creation on Sept. 22, 2017 — more than 400 days before the 2018 general election — was a sign of what was to come.
Michigan’s 2018 race for governor drew about $93.4 million overall, and it spurred record spending by groups that can accept unlimited contributions while operating at least somewhat outside of the candidates’ campaigns. Both outcomes point to larger trends in campaign finance: more money in races; and more money coming from spenders that are allegedly “independent” of the candidates.
Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, a former state senator from East Lansing, won the 2018 race for governor, defeating Schuette in the general election. Whitmer got 53.3 percent of the vote. Schuette got 43.7 percent.
Both candidates survived expensive primary races before a three-month dash to the general election, which saw a deluge of outside money pour into the state.
Across the entire campaign, both the general and the primary, Michigan’s 2018 gubernatorial race attracted about $93.4 million, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network’s (MCFN) analysis of campaign finance disclosures, broadcast TV ad-tracking data from Kantar Media/CMAG and other filings on ad sales.
The 2018 total is easily a record if you don’t adjust past totals for inflation. The previous record was about $79 million, which was set in the 2006 race between Republican Dick DeVos and incumbent Gov. Jennifer Granholm. DeVos put about $35 million of his own money into that race.
If inflation is considered, the 2006 total would still be the state's most expensive gubernatorial contest in recent history: It would equal about $98.3 million in today’s dollars.
The amount of money that poured into the 2018 race from groups outside of the candidates’ campaigns was a record: $45.9 million. In the 2014 race between then-Gov. Rick Snyder and former U.S. House member Mark Schauer, MCFN tracked $41.2 million in spending by outside groups.
These groups could raise unlimited amounts of money from individual donors. Some of the groups disclosed where their money came from, but some of the disclosing groups took money from groups that didn’t disclose, shielding the original sources of the funds.
Of the $93.4 million MCFN tracked in the 2018 race, at least $14.7 million came from non-disclosing groups (about 15 percent of the overall total and about 32 percent of the money from outside groups). However, MCFN can’t track spending on things like mailers and staff by groups that didn’t expressly tell people how to vote.
From the end of the primary campaign through the general election, groups outside of the candidates' campaigns spent more than three times what Whitmer and Schuette’s campaigns spent directly.
The biggest spender was a political organization-tied to the Democratic Governors Association called A Stronger Michigan. The group was focused on helping Whitmer but didn’t file campaign finance disclosures at the state level because it didn’t believe it was expressly advocating for her election.
According to filings it made with the Internal Revenue Service, A Stronger Michigan reported spending $15.1 million in 2018. Its top donors were the Democratic Governors Association at $2.5 million, Progress Advocacy Trust at $1.8 million, the United Auto Workers Michigan Voluntary PAC at $1.5 million and Emily’s List at $1 million. Progressive Advocacy Trust, an administrative account loosely tied to the Ingham County Democratic Party, didn’t file disclosures on where its money came from.
Other groups that spent heavily to support Whitmer or oppose Schuette in the general election were the Conservation Voters of Michigan super PAC ($2.4 million), United We Can super PAC ($1.8 million), Win Justice super PAC ($1.3 million) and For Our Future super PAC ($518,402), according to campaign finance disclosures.
On the pro-Schuette side, a super PAC tied to the Republican Governors Association spent $4.7 million to benefit Schuette, and the conservative nonprofit Americans for Prosperity also spent $4.0 million against Whitmer.
Americans for Prosperity didn’t have to file disclosures on where its money came from and it started spending against Whitmer before the primary was over. The RGA Michigan 2018 PAC’s top donors were Pfizer Inc. at $250,000, Wal-Mart Stores at $200,000, Karen Wright of the Ariel Corporation at $189,999 and Sanofi-Aventis US Inc. at $152,500.
State Solutions Inc., a nonprofit connected to the Republican Governors Association, also spent an estimated $1.4 million on TV ads to promote Schuette. It didn’t have to disclose its donors.
The other most active group to independently support Schuette was the Michigan Republican Party at $2.3 million in spending.
Of the $36.5 million in outside spending MCFN tracked aimed at the general election, only $13.0 million went to benefit Schuette (promoting Schuette or criticizing Whitmer). About $23.3 million benefited Whitmer (promoting Whitmer or criticizing Schuette).
For both the general and primary elections, Whitmer’s campaign raised about $14.2 million, including $929,395 in public funding in the primary election. Whitmer’s campaign spent about $6.5 million on the general election.
Schuette’s campaign raised about $10.0 million overall, including $404,483 in public funding in the primary election. Schuette’s campaign spent about $4.2 million on the general election.
For 2018, the most an individual could give directly to the campaign of a candidate for governor was $6,800. A political action committee (PAC) could give $68,000. Political party committees and the candidates themselves can give more.
Whitmer’s top donors overall were: the Democratic State Central Committee ($100,000); the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association PAC ($68,000); the Bernstein Family PAC ($68,000); the League of Conservation Voters PAC ($68,000); the AFSCME PAC ($68,000); the Michigan State Utility Workers PAC ($68,000); the Michigan Laborers Political League, ($68,000); the Operating Engineers Local 324 PAC ($68,000); the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters PAC ($68,000); the United Auto Workers Michigan Voluntary PAC ($68,000); Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan PAC ($68,000); and the Democratic Governors Association Victory Fund ($68,000).
Schuette’s top donors overall were: the Michigan Republican Party ($130,000); the Michigan Beer & Wine Wholesalers PAC ($68,000); the Realtors PAC ($68,000); the Michigan Chamber of Commerce PAC ($68,000); the Michigan Farm Bureau PAC ($68,000); the Miller Canfield PAC ($59,500); and the Auto Dealers of Michigan PAC ($56,5000).
Gubernatorial candidates who lost in the primary election raised about $23.1 million. Outside groups focused on the primary spent about $9.4 million.
The most well-funded primary campaign was Democrat Shri Thanedar’s. The businessman from Ann Arbor gave his own campaign about $10.4 million, almost all of the money the campaign raised.
On the Republican side, Dr. Jim Hines of Saginaw raised $2.9 million. He and his wife, Martha Hines, gave $2.6 million to the campaign.
Then-Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, a Republican from Portland, raised $3.7 million for his campaign. and former state Sen. Patrick Colbeck, a Republican from Canton, raised $538,787 for his campaign.
The other Democratic candidate, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed of Shelby Township, raised $5.4 million.
The most active outside spenders in the primary election were Better Jobs, Stronger Families, a super PAC that spent $2.5 million to benefit Schuette, Build A Better Michigan, a political organization that spent $2.4 million to benefit Whitmer, and Calley Continues Comeback, a super PAC that spent $960,713 to benefit Calley.
The top donors to Better Jobs, Stronger Families included a nonprofit organization called Fund for Michigan’s Tomorrow’s ($300,000), the Penske Corporation ($300,000), a nonprofit organization called Better Jobs Stronger Families Policy Solutions ($275,000), Kojaian Properties ($250,000) and Oakland Financial Corporation ($250,000).
The top donors to Calley Continues Coemback included William Parfet of the Northwood Group ($323,540), T.E. Adderley of Kelly Services ($250,000) and Daniel DeVos of DP Fox Ventures ($200,000).
The top donors to Build A Better Michigan included Progressive Advocacy Trust ($300,000), the Michigan State Council SEIU ($300,000), the American Federation of Teachers, ($250,000) and the Philip A. Hart Democratic Club ($250,000).
Build A Better Michigan filed disclosures with the Internal Revenue Service not the Michigan secretary of state because the group believed its ads weren’t expressly advocating for Whitmer’s election. However, some of the groups’ ads did identify Whitmer as a candidate for governor, leading to a legal complaint from Republicans.
The secretary of state’s office found that Build A Better Michigan had violated the law by expressly advocating for Whitmer’s election. Through an agreement, the organization agreed to a $37,500 fine.
A trio of nonprofit organizations that didn’t disclose their donors also ran ads in the GOP primary race. The Fund for Michigan’s Tomorrows ran an estimated $989,000 in ads benefiting Schuette. The Fund for Michigan Jobs ran an estimated $1.1 million in ads benefiting Calley. And Making Government Accountable, a nonprofit organization connected to former Gov. Rick Snyder, ran $763,00 in ads benefiting Calley.