By SIMON D. SCHUSTER
Michigan Campaign Finance Network
LANSING (August 30, 2021) — In the 2018 election, one race for the Michigan House of Representatives cost $1.5 million, an unprecedented amount.
Two years later, in 2020, eight races cost more than that.
The cost of Michigan’s House of Representatives election in 2020 jumped a staggering 42%, to a total of at least $39.3 million, according to an analysis by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.
Caucus PAC spending soared by nearly $4.5 million, PAC contributions to candidates increased by $1.5 million and MCFN’s tracking of undisclosed television advertising revealed a twofold increase. It’s the fifth consecutive election for the Michigan House of Representatives that broke records.
While spending in legislative races is often centered around a small number of competitive districts, for the first time ever the ten most expensive races together cost more than the elections for the chamber’s other 100 seats combined. Those races were the primary source of the dramatic rise in cost.
There’s a caveat to these comparisons. For the first time MCFN is including unreported spending from advertising on local cable, as tracked by the firm AdImpact, and Facebook, which together comprise about $5.2 million of that total. Even without that spending included it would still be far and away the most expensive state house election in Michigan’s history.
(Note: Some totals won’t perfectly equalize due to discrepancies in candidate and caucus PAC reporting.)
Competitive Races Eclipse The Rest
The contest between Rep. Ryan Berman (R-Commerce Twp.) and Democrat Julia Pulver was the most expensive state house race since MCFN began tracking election spending — by a long shot.
Totaling at least $3.4 million, It was even more expensive than any Michigan Senate election in 2018. Spending from the party and caucus PACs in this race outmatched candidate fundraising more than three-to-one. Pulver out-fundraised Berman by more than $200,000, yet Berman ended with a $600,000 edge over Pulver from the party and outside groups.
The top 10 most expensive races cost a combined $21.9 million, more than the elections for the chamber’s other 100 seats, which cost $17 million. The $21.9 million spent in these ten races is more than the entire cost of the election just a decade ago.
To explore further, MCFN has compiled a breakdown of the funding sources for every general election candidate in every district which can be viewed here.
The Largest Source Of Dark Money? The Parties Themselves
AdImpact recorded close to $15 million in spending on ads appearing on television and radio, according to the firm AdImpact. A third of that, $5 million, camefrom Michigan's Democratic and Republican parties, yet the spending didn’t appear on state or federal disclosures.
This indicates the ads were purchased by using the parties’ administrative accounts. These accounts can accept unlimited corporate contributions and don’t have to disclose their donors, but can’t directly advocate for or work with candidates.
While disclosed advertising from candidates focused on their legislative accomplishments or promises if elected, the parties largely went on the attack with dark money. In the 104th district, the Michigan Republican Party alleged Democrat Dan O’Neil had partnered with “out-of-state radicals,” while the Michigan Democratic Party insinuated Republican now-Rep. John Roth would continue his predecessor’s legacy, who faced federal corruption charges.
Among general election candidates, outside spending — including caucus PACs, the state parties, independent PACs and dark money organizations — eclipsed candidate fundraising by about $1 million.
The parties also appeared to use administrative accounts to pay for political mail in competitive districts, spending MCFN currently can’t track.
Small-Dollars Donations Triple From 2018
Though less than a quarter of the money in this election came from people donating to campaigns, at first glance 2020 looks like an explosion of political engagement. Some candidates were reporting tens of thousands of grassroots donations in what seems like a groundswell of support.
The reality is a little more complicated.
There were nearly 250,000 itemized donations to state house campaigns in 2020, more than all the donations to every candidate for statewide office in 2018. And a huge chunk of those contributions were just a few dollars sent from outside Michigan, via a few clicks online.
Nearly nine out of 10 itemized donations of $20 or less came from outside Michigan, and they were responsible for more than three-quarters of the grassroots dollars raised. Most candidates didn’t benefit from them, either. Four democratic women together received more than 68% of the grassroots donations, and the majority of candidates didn’t report any at all.
Now-Rep. Kelly Breen (D-Novi) and Democrat Barb Anness reported more contributions than every Michigan House candidate in the 2016 cycle combined. Anness, who received 31,060 contributions to raise $457,000, ultimately lost her race to now-Rep. Mark Tisdel (R-Rochester Hills), who raised half as much with 373 donations. Yet spending by the caucus PACs and state parties essentially equalized their financial support in that $2.5 million race.
ActBlue, the preeminent digital fundraising platform for Democrats, made the influx possible. It allows anyone to solicit donations for a slate of candidates they create, enabling prominent activists to choose the candidates they felt deserved national attention — and dollars.
The Republican platform WinRed unveiled this option last March but the level of enthusiasm hasn’t been the same. Tim Beson received the most grassroots donations of any GOP candidate: 112.
This sort of internet-centric, crowdsourced fundraising is well-established in national politics and this marks its most significant impact on state legislative races in Michigan to date, but it’s staying power and ability to become a significant source of campaign cash remains unclear.
Devos Family Remain Top Individual Donors
When accounting for the donors to candidate campaigns, House caucus PACs and leadership PACs for House members, the billionaire Devos family again were the largest donors, contributing close to $860,000.
Their giving would seem so coordinated it’s uncanny. For at least 25 different committees, Daniel, Doug, Maria, Pamella, Richard and Suzy Devos all gave the maximum contribution limit together, on the same day, listing the same address.
Despite Betsy Devos’ pledge to halt giving during her tenure as education secretary, contributions continued unabated from her husband and other family members. While she wasn't present in these campaign finance records, her giving has resumed in 2021.
The single largest contributor in the election was the Republican State Leadership Committee, which gave $930,000. It’s a 527 organization, which can accept donations from any source, and since 2019 about two-thirds of its contributions have been from businesses, dark money nonprofits and other organizations, according to MCFN’s analysis. The recipients of those funds in Michigan were leadership PACs, however, which are barred from taking corporate cash under Michigan’s campaign finance law, raising questions about the source of those contributions.