In four short years, Michigan became some of the most hotly-contested political territory in the United States. And in 2020 the decision as to which party would control both the U.S. Senate and the presidency flowed in part through Michigan.
A nearly unfathomable amount of money bore that out. Five hundred and thirty-three million dollars.
That’s the minimum cost of the 2020 election according to tracking from the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. The $533 million represents an astonishing 65% increase from 2018’s cost, which was previously the most expensive election in state history. Compared to the 2016 presidential election, where the state seemed a lock for Democrats, it’s a more than seven-fold increase.
A dam holding back a torrent of national money gave way in 2020, engulfing the state in spending over airwaves, in mailboxes and on social media. Two races, for the presidency and U.S. Senate, would have made this the costliest election in Michigan’s history alone. Four different elections hit all-time highs for cost:
MCFN has tracked the spending in all of Michigan's state-level elections but this total remains a minimum estimate of the election’s true cost. The widespread use of dark money that enters the state without having to disclose its sources or spending means the real cost is undoubtedly higher than $533 million. A more detailed explanation of how MCFN follows the money is available here.
You can explore MCFN’s coverage in all of these races below.
Michigan’s U.S. Senate election proved to be the most expensive in the state’s history by a long shot. Democratic hopes of achieving control of Congress were contingent upon incumbent U.S. Senator Gary Peters retaining his seat. The spending reflected it.
Nothing has cemented Michigan’s status as a battleground state more than the courting it received by presidential candidates throughout 2020. The campaign of then-Democratic nominee Joe Biden and its dark money allies vastly outspent its counterparts to ultimately win the state by only 156,000 votes, underscoring just how hard-fought the contest was here.
Coming off a 2018 midterm cycle that also saw enormous spending, Michigan’s congressional elections saw costs continue to rise throughout the state, despite no single race garnering the level of national attention some of 2018’s contests did.
The last five elections for the Michigan legislature's lower chamber broke spending records and this election saw the largest increase between election cycles since MCFN began tracking election costs.
While not the record-shattering year as it was for other elections, 2020 was the fifth-most expensive Supreme Court election in Michigan’s history, attracting at least $10.4 million. The spending was lopsided in favor of the two Democratic nominees, incumbent Chief Justice Bridget McCormack and newcomer Elizabeth Welch, who effectively ran for office as a pair.
While the four major candidates raised slightly more than $3.1 million, outside groups dominated the race with more than $6.9 million in spending. About $2.7 million came from a single super PAC called Justice For All, which ran ads to elect McCormack and Welch. Its top donor was a dark money organization connected to the liberal group Progress Michigan, which gave $700,000. In all, nearly 85% of outside spending went toward supporting Democrats.
Michigan’s ballot proposals, races for university boards and the State Board of Education were comparitvely tame, especially given the tens of millions spent in the last election on three major ballot proposals.
— The statewide proposal in 2020 aimed to provide the state more discretion over how it could spend the money it receives in the Natural Resources Trust Fund. The committee supporting its passage raised a little more than $800,000, and while supported by a fair number of environmental groups, it also received backing from dark money nonprofits backed by electrical utilities and the oil corporation Enbridge Energy. A group was formed to oppose the measure but never reported any donations. The proposal passed comfortably.
— Board members for Michigan’s three largest research universities raised nearly $1.2 million. More than half of that was accrued by a candidate who ultimately lost: Brain Mosallam, who was seeking reelection to Michigan State’s Board of Trustees. He was ultimately unseated in that race.
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