The Mammoth Cost Of Michigan's U.S. Senate Election

More than $200 million was spent in the race between John James and Gary Peters, easily making in the most expensive single election in Michigan's history.



Michigan Campaign Finance Network


LANSING (Mar. 4, 2021) — $206 Million. At least.

That was the amount spent in the competitive election for Michigan’s U.S. Senate seat in 2020, according to a compilation and analysis of campaign finance and ad tracking data analyzed by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. 

It was the most expensive single race in Michigan’s history, costing more than twice as much as the Governor's race in 2018.

Peters ultimately won the race by a margin of about 92,000 votes. He received 49.9% of the vote, about 1.7% above James.

Both candidates raised nearly $50 million, according to FEC filings, with James raising $48.3 million and Peters $49.6 million through mid-November. James raised more than $300,000 that the Federal Election Commission (FEC) categorized as donations for a potential recount, though the campaign never pursued that effort.

Yet outside groups outspent both candidates, with at least $106 million spent between at least 100 organizations advertising on television, radio, social media and by mail. Peters had about $5 million more in outside support than James.

Despite its record-shattering expense, the contest between Republican John James and incumbent Democrat Gary Peters was only the seventh-most expensive U.S. Senate election in 2020, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

MCFN compiled filings from the FEC, data from the firm AdImpact covering broadcast advertising and self-reported totals from Facebook and Google. While this is a relatively comprehensive total of the election’s cost, it represents a minimum rather than an absolute cost. 

Beyond the implications for Michigan’s representation in Congress, partisan control of the U.S. Senate lay in the balance, and what emerged as the campaign season wore on was a proxy war between behemoth super PACs. Fifteen outside groups spent more than $1 million on the race and made up $93 million of the spending. The top ten groups supporting each candidate can be viewed here

Beyond the campaigns, the largest spenders in this election were super PACs. While they have to report their donors to the FEC and ostensibly can’t coordinate with campaigns, super PACs have no contribution limits and are often funded by dark money organizations and the ultra-wealthy. 

The result was airwaves, mailboxes and news feeds saturated with political ads. AdImpact tracking reported U.S. Senate ads ran on Michigan broadcast television more than 130,000 times.

On Facebook, political ads mentioning either candidate were viewed at least 55 million times in Michigan alone and a host of organizations that didn’t have to report their spending purchased more than $600,000 in advertising, according to an MCFN analysis of the company’s disclosed data.

James also lost in 2018 to Michigan’s other incumbent U.S. Senator, Democrat Debbie Stabenow, in a race that cost $40 million, a fifth as much.

Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC which raised more than $300 million for the 2020 elections, spent a whopping $35 million to support Peters. With no contribution limits, the PAC received hundreds of six and seven-figure contributions, with the two largest from dark money groups that also directly advertised in Michigan on television and Facebook. In September, the group created a Facebook page called “Michigan Values” and spent $1.2 million running ads with the name.

While the candidates spent most of their money casting themselves in a positive light, outside groups went on the attack. Of the $97 million in disclosed outside spending reported to the FEC, $80 million was reported as “opposing” one candidate rather than supporting the other, indicating a negative tone.

The conservative dark money nonprofit One Nation sent mail to Michigan residents depicting the state’s “Pure Michigan” welcome sign with the words “Sanctuary Cities” scrawled over it in a graffiti-like font, asserting Peters had put Michiganders in danger. Another, from the United Auto Workers union, said James and other Republicans had a plan to “rob retirees, loot our retirements and line Wall Street’s pockets.”

Better Future MI Fund was a super PAC evidently created solely to back James. It received $13 million from just 95 ultra-wealthy donors, including some of Michigan’s largest conservative patrons: the DeVos, Van Andel and Haworth families. Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison and financier Stephen Schwartzman each gave $1 million. Citadel Asset Management CEO Kenneth Griffin contributed $4 million. And the PAC gave $840,000 to a consultant firm run by a former aide to then-Vice President Mike Pence, labeling it fundraising consulting.

On television, Senate Majority PAC and Better Future MI Fund essentially told viewers the same thing: the candidate they oppose is “for them, not Michigan” and “doesn’t work for Michigan.”

Michigan’s Democratic and Republican parties also spent a combined $2.1 million supporting their nominees with digital ads and mailings. Both parties would have exceeded the coordinated party expenditure limit of $813,300 had they not used a loophole that allows them to exempt political mail.

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