State lawmakers raised nearly $8 million in non-election year

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By Eli Pales

LANSING – You may not know your state legislator,  but chances are they’ve raised eye-popping sums of money to get your attention.  

Last year, the average state lawmaker in Michigan raised more than $50,000 to run for office, according to a Spartan Newsroom analysis of campaign finance records. That’s even though there were no regularly scheduled elections that year.

Graphic by Eli Pales

As this year’s election approaches, legislators are gearing up to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. Several factors contribute to ballooning campaign costs.

Communication is the most expensive part of a campaign, especially in a senate district representing nearly 300,000 people, said Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-Meridian Township.

“One mailing to my entire district, just the voting population, is like $20,000,” said Hertel, who was first elected in 2014. “If you want to get a message out, it is very expensive.”  

Media costs contribute, in large part, to how expensive campaigns are, especially as they become more modern, said Rep. Steve Marino, R-Harrison Township. Marino donates his own funds to his campaign, but also fundraises traditionally because he believes it can help him better communicate with constituents.

“There’s a rising cost with TV ad buys,” Marino said. “There’s a rising cost with mail design. Social media 15 years ago wasn’t even in play; now it tends to be a very, very, very big portion of a candidate’s budget.”

Data analytics, websites and targeted advertising are reasons for the growing expense of modern campaigns, he said. It isn’t just about making social media posts. Politicians must promote and target users to get their message out.

While most legislators raise substantial sums of money, that money is not necessarily spent just on their own campaigns, Hertel said. Those running campaigns in competitive districts often rely on the substantial sums raised by incumbents like Hertel.

“If you looked at my campaign finance reports, for example, most of my money has gone to the caucus to pick up more seats,” Hertel said. “The things I care about aren’t going to happen in this current legislature… I’ve gotten six bills to the governor’s desk, but the big things I care about aren’t going to happen unless more Democrats win in 2018.”  

In Michigan, term limits are one reason for increased spending, said Bill Ballenger, a former state legislator serving from 1969 to 1974 and now a capital-area political pundit. Incumbents do a better job at deterring candidates, open seats draw more candidates and spending.

“Incumbency is worth more than anything you can quantify,” Marino said.

Campaign financing has changed since Ballenger ran for a Republican state house seat in 1968. Then, most candidates were ashamed to take money, he said.

“My feeling as a candidate was that I was embarrassed to spend any great amount of money to get elected,” Ballenger said. “I didn’t want it to appear that I was buying the nomination on the Republican side. I don’t think my feeling was unique. If you were a candidate, you wanted to prove your popularity with the electorate without buying your votes, putting yourself out there with your credentials.”

He was outspent by two other candidates in the primary, but he still won the race, Ballenger said.

“Everything is changed today,” he said. “Now, it’s a point of pride how much money you can raise in a campaign and how much you can spend. Candidates and their campaigns actually brag about their early start in fundraising.”

The rising costs of campaigns can be largely attributed to court cases over the past 50 years, Ballenger said. That includes the 1978 Buckley v. Valeo case, which found campaign spending caps unconstitutional. In the recent Citizens United case, the Supreme Court found independent spending by corporations and labor groups is protected by the First Amendment and cannot be limited by government.

According to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network’s tracking, the 110 races for the State House cost a combined $15 million in 2002. In 2016, the 110 races cost a combined $27 million.

Hertel and Marino disagree on if the increase in spending has helped or hurt the electoral process. Marino said higher spending helps him communicate with his constituents because it allows him to send his personal phone number out to each constituent frequently. Without the mailings, he said, he may not have been able to resolve problems his constituents needed addressed.

But Hertel said the money corrupts electoral politics.

“I think there is clear evidence of undue influence of money in politics,” said Hertel. “I don’t think people should have to raise this kind of money to run for office.

Ballenger does not think that heavy spending raises awareness of legislators among their constituents.

“Are those TV ads really educating the public to a far greater extent than used to be the case?” Ballenger said. “Are you really getting a sense of where Joe Blow stands and differs from his opponent compared to the way it used to be 30, 40 or 50 years ago? I would say no.”

Rather than informing voters, campaign spending all comes down to winning more seats than the other party, Ballenger said.

“Money is being spent because it’s all about control and power.”

Despite the large sums raised by lawmakers, often these funds are raised from a small number of elite contributors. Nationwide, 68 percent of campaign funds raised in 2016 came from donations greater than $200 and several individuals donated well in excess of $100,000 to campaigns.

Editor’s note: This story is one of a series produced by a Spartan Newsroom campaign finance data analysis project.  Andrew Birkle, Natalie Dymkowski, Jaylyn Galloway, Ian Hawley, Eli Pales, Zach Robertson and William Thiede contributed to the series. It was produced with the advice and collaboration of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

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