Self-funded campaigns on the rise

By JAYLYN GALLOWAY
Capital News Service

LANSING – In 2016, President Donald Trump spent $66 million of his own funds on his campaign. He’s hardly the only politician to invest in his or her own career.

The Legislature produced seven big self-funders in 2017 – a year when state lawmakers weren’t running for office, according to a Spartan Newsroom analysis of campaign finance records.  

Self-funding is when candidates use their own money to finance some or all of their campaign costs. Some candidates don’t take money from special interest organizations that operate political action committees (PACs). Other self-funders don’t necessarily oppose support from those committees.

The top self-funders in 2017 among Michigan lawmakers were Reps. Holly Hughes of Montague ($250,000); John Bizon of Battle Creek ($190,000); Peter Lucido of Shelby Township ($50,000); Jim Runestad of White Lake ($36,000); Lana Theis of Brighton ($17,000); Jim Tedder of Clarkston ($16,000); and Robert Kosowski of Westland ($10,000).   

Lucido gave himself $50,000 to run for office and took no PAC money, according to campaign finance records.

“I self-funded to put my money where my mouth is,” he said.

Bizon, the second-highest self-funder at $190,000, called himself  “a lobbyist for the people.”

And Kosowski said self-funding doesn’t put him at a disadvantage.

“I want to invest in myself – that I’m all in,” he said.

Kosowski, Lucido and Bizon are running for Senate seats this year.   

Hughes, the top self-funder, didn’t respond to repeated requests for an interview. Runestad, Theis and Tedder also didn’t respond to requests for interviews.

It’s not just lawmakers who fund their own campaigns. Gov. Rick Snyder spent $6 million on his first election.

Shri Thanedar, a gubernatorial candidate in the Democratic primary this year, is trying to duplicate that success. He gave $6 million to his campaign.

Rather than taking PAC money, Thanedar said he funded his run by selling his chemical testing company.

“I didn’t want to be beholden to corporations,” Thanedar said, “I believe the reason why our government is corrupt, and corporations get away with things, is the dependency on corporation money.”

Political experts say that betting on yourself like Trump, Snyder and Thanedar doesn’t often work.

“Personally, you don’t see many Michigan people self-fund, ” said Lew Dodak, the chief executive officer of the Dodak Johnson political consultant firm and a former House speaker. “Your chances of being elected are small.”

In fact, 88 percent of political candidates in a nationwide study who relied heavily on their own money lost their election from 2010 through 2015, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics based in Helena, Montana.

Dodak said he would urge Thanedar to run for something else to increase his name recognition because running as an unknown for governor is a long shot.

When it comes to elections, it’s more of a matter of having enough money instead of the most money, political experts say.

“I will always tell candidates you don’t have to have the most money,” said Adrian Hemond, the chief executive officer of Grassroots Midwest, a Lansing political consulting company. “You just have to have enough to win the race.”

Self-funding helps put candidates in direct contact with people who are voting, Hemond said, rather than having limited time to raise money through television commercials or knocking on voters’ doors.

When candidates invest in themselves, it shows that they’re serious about winning, and that makes other people want to invest in them, Hemond said.

Accepting PAC money from special interest groups isn’t always a solution.

Lucido said, “If you keep being elected with these special groups, it sounds to me like you’re carrying water for the special interest, not the people, Carry the water for the people –it’s refreshing.”

Jaylyn Galloway writes for Spartan Newsroom.