By SIMON D. SCHUSTER
Michigan Campaign Finance Network
LANSING (August 2, 2021) — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s campaign raised a record $8.6 million in the first half of 2021, with more than a third of it raised through a caveat in Michigan campaign finance rules allowing gubernatorial candidates to completely side-step contribution limits.
It’s ostensibly possible thanks to the litany of recall petitions filed against the governor since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The recalls never grew into substantial challenges, but for the Governor they’ve paid seven-figure dividends.
The campaign war chest Whitmer has amassed is indisputably record-shattering. Her four would-be Republican opponents raised less than $1 million — combined. Yet close to $4.5 million of the more than $14 million raised since the 2018 election came from donors who would’ve violated contribution limits under normal circumstances. If those 163 donors had been capped at the standard $7,150 contribution limit, Whitmer’s overall fundraising haul would decrease by roughly $3.4 million.
Eric Doster, a campaign finance attorney with numerous Republican clients, is skeptical the campaign can ignore limits in the first place given how the recalls have floundered.
“We know darn well there's not going to be a recall election call, okay? Let's not kid ourselves, because these guys aren’t circulating any petitions,” Doster told MCFN in an interview. “I don't think that the approval of a recall petition language is the same thing as a recall election or a recall being ‘actively being sought.’”
Doster was referring to language from a 1984 ruling on campaign finance law issued by the Michigan Department of State that granted the removal of contribution limits if opponents were trying to recall them. They determined that because activists pushing for a recall election operate as political committees, which aren’t subject to contribution limits, candidates fighting the recall shouldn’t face contribution limits, either, lest they be at a disadvantage.
A spokesperson for the Whitmer campaign did not return multiple requests for an interview.
Though the recalls have been something of a rallying cry for grassroots conservatives since the institution of public health orders, more established organizations were quick to downplay them as little more than theater after the filing.
Doster argues the key phrase is from a letter sent the previous year to then-Senate Majority Leader William Faust, which proclaims a candidate can only accept donations of unlimited size “if the officeholder’s [sic] recall is actively being sought.” In Whitmer’s case, Doster doesn’t think that bar’s been met. The conservative Michigan Freedom Fund has echoed these arguments in a campaign finance complaint filed with the state, calling the move an “illegal scheme.”
The only recall effort to gather signatures did so from October to December, and an organizer admitted to The Detroit News they didn’t have the resources, financial or otherwise, for their petition to succeed.
Attorneys Steve Liedel and Mark Brewer, both Democratically-aligned campaign finance experts, pointed to the state’s definition of a “recall period,” which begins the day a committee is formed for the recall or petition language is submitted.
Liedel, who is representing Whitmer in a lawsuit against the petitions, doesn’t see that as a hard start, either.
“It makes no sense to say that you can't raise money and expend money until there's an actual approved petition because there are costs associated with responding to a recall petition, both legally and publicly,” Leidel said.
Still, campaign finance data shows a large majority of the money that Whitmer raised for the recall arrived not as petitions were being reviewed or active, but after they ended, as attorneys for Whitmer continued to fight the decisions in court.
The period of validity for the most recent recall ended in March 9, 2021, yet more than $3.5 of that $4.5 million from donors who exceeded normal limits has been raised after that date. The Governor has continued to sue the Board of State Canvassers, which approves recall petitions, over those decisions, appealing a court of appeals ruling from late May to the Michigan Supreme Court.
Twenty-one donors gave $50,000 or more. Five of them each gave $250,000, including Michigan attorney Mark Bernstein, J.B. Pritzker, the billionaire governor of Illinois; oil magnate Stacy Schusterman along with two heirs of the Stryker Corporation fortune. A full list of donors who exceeded regular donor limits is included at the bottom of this article.
Regardless, the excess money isn’t the campaign’s to keep forever, though it may certainly help the Governor’s reelection. All agree the money gathered to fight a recall has to be used by the campaign for that purpose. Once that’s over, the money can’t remain in Whitmer’s campaign coffers.
The campaign can either return all of the unspent funds, or with the donor’s permission, keep up to $7,150 and refund the rest. It’s also possible the campaign could give the money to the Michigan Democratic party or a charity, the former of which multiple sources saw as a likely outcome.
Leidel has an expansive view of how the money can be used, however. He didn’t see a problem with the campaign running ads touting Whitmer’s record using the recall money as long as it doesn’t mention her reelection. This is similar to how outside groups use issue advocacy to promote candidates while avoiding campaign finance requirements.
And the window for raising unlimited amounts just received a further extension. At the July 26 board of state canvassers meeting, a new petition against Whitmer had language approved, resetting the clock once again.
This petition was again organized by David Blair, who has previously been involved in more sordid recall efforts. He told MCFN there aren’t yet any plans to organize a signature collection.
“It's not so much the recall as it is [that] we need to fight for this freedom from all directions, and I think we're right in doing so,” Blair said.
Blair casts himself as a reluctant fighter against the creep of tyranny, but when asked if he had concerns his efforts might inadvertently aid the Governor’s reelection he became conspiratorial.
“They have probably been working at this for at least four to 12 years, I'm guessing,” Blair told MCFN. “I think there's an alternate agenda behind the scenes. I don't know who or why they would be doing it but I think we've seen it in other countries happen. I think they don't want us to be a capitalist society here in America anymore.”
Whitmer had previously advocated for lower contribution limits. As a state senator in 2013, when legislation that ultimately doubled contribution limits to nearly all state candidates came up for a vote, Whitmer offered a largely symbolic amendment that would have instead halved them from their current amounts. It resoundingly failed.
Liedel compared campaign fundraising to sports, where the “teams” exploit tactics as aggressively as possible.
“You can still advocate for changes in the law, you know, but you don't have to unilaterally disarm,” Liedel said. “That's not what the law requires and that's not what a wise candidate typically does.”
In this instance, however, the strategy isn’t available to Whitmer’s opponents. Still, Leidel doubts the creation of phony recalls to allow unlimited contributions could become a norm for a simple reason: It’s easier to create a dark money nonprofit to accomplish the same thing.