Michigan Republicans pass Democrats in PAC contributions

Capital News Service

LANSING – In 2017, Republican lawmakers in Michigan raised more campaign funds from political action committees than Democrats.

Contributions from the committees commonly called PACs hit over $2.8 million for the GOP in a non-election year, according to a Spartan Newsroom analysis of campaign finance records.  Their Democratic counterparts raised nearly $1.4 million from PACs.

PACs are a tool that businesses, labor unions and other interest groups use to raise money for candidates in hopes of influencing policy.

While Republican lawmakers raised more from PACs, Democrats got a higher percentage of their total funding from PACs — nearly 61 percent of their total contributions came from those sources.  PACs accounted for about 51 percent of all the money Republicans raised.

Multiple PACs donate a significant amount of money to candidates. Many distinctly favor one party over the other.  Among the most polarized:

  • The Michigan Chamber of Commerce spent 98.5 percent of its $83,700 in contributions on Republicans.  
  • Comcast spent 84 percent of its $11,000 on GOP candidates.
  • The United Auto Workers spent all of its $62,500 in PAC funds on Democrats
  • The Michigan Education Association spent 83 percent of its $32,700 in PAC contributions on Democrats.

“There are PACs for both parties that donate a large sum of money to the people they want to see in that position,” said Lisa Canada, the political director for the Detroit Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights, a union that tends to back Democrats. “This past year, politicians in office in Michigan were primarily Republican, which had a lot to do with the money being contributed.”

One reason why Republicans may rely proportionately less than Democrats on PACs is that Michigan has become more Republican over the years, said Jen Smith, a retired political consultant FROM WHERE?.

“The GOP doesn’t have to rely on PACs giving them as much money when people are going out and donating,” Smith said. “They have great influence over the people in Michigan right now.”

Republican legislators raised on average $62,061 from all sources in 2017. The average for Democratic legislators was $39,542.

“Everybody takes money from PACs, not just Republicans,” said Tony Daunt, executive director of  the Lansing-based Michigan Freedom Fund, a conservative organization that says it strives to catalyze a grassroots movement in favor of “constitutional rights.”

“It’s a popular myth that only the Republicans take PAC money, and the media goes along with that myth,” Daunt said.

William Theide writes for Spartan Newsroom.


NRA influence stretches beyond direct contributions

Capital News Service

LANSING — Despite the National Rifle Association’s reputation as a powerful lobby, the group donated to only one Michigan lawmaker in 2017, according to a Spartan Newsroom analysis of campaign finance records.

While Michigan’s state lawmakers raised nearly $8 million last year, Rep. Triston Cole, R-Mancelona, was the only one who got money from the NRA’s political action committee – a $500 donation.

Why Cole was singled out is hard to say. The NRA isn’t talking about it. Cole emailed this statement: “I am honored that because of my Second Amendment stance and hard work on legislation that I have gained the support of the NRA.”

Cole said the NRA is a grassroots organization with many members in his district, which covers Montmorency, Antrim, Charlevoix, Oscoda and Otsego counties.

So, how does the NRA maintain its reputation as a powerful influencer of state lawmakers without direct PAC donations?

The organization still spends a lot of money on elections without contributing to individual candidates, said Emily Durbin, the leader of Michigan’s Moms Demand Action chapter, an organization that works to reduce gun violence.

“Much of it consists of funding mailers in opposition to those running against their preferred candidate,” Durbin said.

Mailers fall under something called independent expenditures, a way of supporting a specific candidate without being in communication with them, said

J T Stepleton, a researcher for the National Institute on Money in State Politics based in Helena, Montana.

That makes them unlike traditional PAC donations, which go directly to lawmakers’ campaigns where they can use it however they chose, Stepleton said.  The strategy used by the NRA’s PAC allows the organization to support a candidate without appearing in campaign finance reports.

“If (PACs) are spending money on Michigan elections, the odds are it’s going to end up being in the form of independent expenditures,” Stepleton said. “That comes with a number of benefits for those involved, especially because they don’t have to deal with contribution limits.”

The NRA doesn’t spend a lot of money on state-level races, he said. “It’s not that they won’t, and they often times strategically target certain races, but they do devote most of their money to federal elections.”

The NRA’s support often come in the form of scorecards, which are mailed to voters to show where candidates stand on gun issues and usually come with a grade.

Scorecards “can be a pretty powerful force in an election,” Stepleton said.

The NRA says it remains influential because its members truly care about gun rights. Officials with the group declined direct comment and an interview request for this article. However, they said in an email:

“The power of the NRA comes from our expansive and passionate member base and our grassroots organization,” Amy Hunter, the media liaison for the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, wrote. “Our members, and all Second Amendment supporters, care deeply about this issue and they vote.”

Durbin, of Michigan’s Moms Demand Action, said a key factor in the NRA’s effectiveness is its ability to fire up its base, Durbin said.

“They mobilize some of their members to loudly and persistently advocate with their lawmakers,” Durbin said. “They tend to use a lot of inflammatory language and scare tactics to convince their members that reasonable, common-sense measures on gun policies are actually covert attempts to confiscate guns or to completely roll back the Second Amendment.”

Stepleton agrees that member engagement is key for the NRA.

“One thing that just goes overlooked is their own mobilization capacity,” Stepleton said. “That is essentially how they interact with their members, which wouldn’t really show up on a campaign finance report.”

Durbin said that when constituents call, lawmakers pay attention, and the narrative that the government and political left are trying to take away guns has been very effective for the NRA.

“It is really telling people, many of whom have hobbies or interest related to firearms, that someone is trying to take that part of their hobby, their identity, their interest, part of their traditions away and people wish to defend that,” Durbin said. “Even if none of the proposals on the table are anything close to that.”

In Michigan, Stepleton said, it’s less about direct money contributions and more about the NRA telling its members whom they can trust. When the NRA’s leaders talk, its members listen and tend to vote accordingly.

Andrew Birkle writes for Spartan Newsroom.

Self-funded campaigns on the rise

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.

Campaigns raise big bucks in nonelction year

Capital News Service

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

Last year, the average Michigan lawmaker n 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 in 2017.

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 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. He contributes his own funds to his campaign, but also fundraises traditionally because he says it helps 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.

Hertel said that while most legislators raise substantial sums of money, that money isn’t necessarily spent exclusively on their own campaigns. Those running campaigns in competitive districts often rely on the substantial sums raised by incumbents like Hertel in safer districts.

“If you looked at my campaign finance reports, for example, most of my money has gone to the (Democratic) 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.”  

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

Term limits are one reason for increased spending, said Bill Ballenger, a former legislator and now a capital-area political pundit. Incumbents do a better job at deterring candidates while open seats draw more candidates and spending.

”Campaign financing has changed since Ballenger, a Republican, first ran for a 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.

“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.”

Rising campaign costs can be largely attributed to court cases over the past 50 years, Ballenger said. That includes a 1978 case that found campaign spending caps unconstitutional. In the 2010 Citizens United case, the U.S. Supreme Court found independent spending by corporations and labor groups to be protected by the First Amendment, ruling that the government can’t limit it.

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

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

But Hertel said the money corrupts politics.

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

Ballenger said he doesn’t think that heavy spending raises constituent awareness of legislators.

“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, funds often 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.

Eli Pales reports for Spartan Newsroom.

Proposed constitutional amendment would streamline voter registration

Capital News Service

LANSING – Voter advocacy and civil rights groups are petitioning for a state constitutional amendment that would make it easier for Michigan residents to vote.

The campaign, called “Promote the Vote,” seeks to give military members more time to vote, automatically register citizens when they conduct business at a Secretary of State office and allow absentee voting without the need to give a reason. It also would allow same-day voting registration with proof of residency and straight party voting.

Under current state law, you need to be registered at least 30 days before an election  to vote. Military operating from an overseas installation are advised to send back their absentee ballot 35 days before election day, according to the Federal Voting Assistance Program.

“We just want voting to be accessible, convenient and everyone’s vote to be counted and secure,” said Judy Karandjeff, the president of the League of Women Voters.

The proposal which is targeted for next November’s election, is backed by the league, the American Civil Liberties Union and the state and Detroit branches of the NAACP.  

The Secretary of State’s office is confident in the state’s current voting process, said Fred Woodhams, the elections agency’s director of communication.

“We believe that Michigan elections system does an excellent job of allowing voters to cast a ballot and have their voice heard.”

“Michigan saw the most registered voters ever in 2016,” he said. “Recent elections have seen near-record turnout.”

The Board of State Canvassers has approved the petition language, “and people will be able to sign the petition shortly,” Karandjeff said.

Backers of the proposal must get 315,654 valid signatures of registered voters to make the November ballot.

Only 15 states and the District of Columbia allow same-day registration, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. The organization says there is strong evidence that election day registration increases voter turnout.

Promote the Vote isn’t the only campaign seeking to reform Michigan’s elections laws. Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, a group of activists introduced a constitutional amendment proposal called Voters Not Politicians.

It would establish an independent commission to oversee the drawing of Michigan’s electoral districts. Elected officials would be ineligible to serve on the commission.

In December the group turned in more than 425,000 valid signatures to the Secretary of State, where the petition is under review. The redistricting process, which takes place every 10 years, was controlled by Republicans in 2011 and the party has since maintained legislative majorities in elections.

Attack Ads Info Box

Excerpts from recent Michigan political attack ads

“In crunch time, Brian Calley fumbled. We need a strong leader.” – Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette, against Lt. Gov. Brian Calley

“You can buy a Super Bowl ad. You can buy consultants to tell you the right political positions. You can even tell people you’re Detroit Tough. But in Michigan, we know tough when we see it.” — Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James, against Sandy Pensler

“Senator Stabenow votes with [U.S. Sen. Elizabeth] Warren 93 percent of the time … Tell Senator Stabenow ‘no to government health care!’” — National Republican Senatorial Committee, against Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow


Statewide campaigns are going negative in recent ads

Capital News Service

LANSING — Although the first half of an advertisement from John James’s U.S. Senate campaign is spent questioning an opponent’s policy decisions and toughness, the campaign doesn’t want it to be seen as an attack on fellow Republican Sandy Pensler.

“We don’t look at it as a negative ad,” said Ted Goodman, communication director for James, a Farmington Hills businessman. “We’re very proud to have ads that focus on John James and how he is different from the other candidates that are running.”

In the digital ad, the campaign responds to Grosse Pointe businessman Pensler’s “Detroit Tough” advertisement, which aired on Super Bowl Sunday.

James’s 30-second spot opens by suggesting Pensler hires consultants “to tell [him] the right political positions” and questioning Pensler’s toughness. About halfway through, the ad shifts, highlighting James’ status as an Iraq combat veteran and self-described “conservative outsider.”

Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette’s campaign funded a Super Bowl Sunday ad of its own, calling out Republican primary challenger and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley’s legislative history under former Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

Attack ad or not, the decision to go on the offensive in an attempt to highlight a candidate’s uniqueness is commonplace in modern politics.

It is rarer for campaigns to take ownership of ads that go after opponents, as James’s and Schuette’s do.

Only about one in four ads that solely attacked another candidate or included negative content were funded by a candidate’s committee instead of a third party during the 2016 elections, according to data provided by the Political TV Ad Archive.

Letting outside organizations do the dirty work can insulate the candidate if the public doesn’t respond well to an attack or if the claims are questionable, according to J. Cherie Strachan, a political science professor at Central Michigan University.

“You don’t even necessarily have knowledge of the ad or how it’s being put together,” Strachan said. “It prevents the backlash.”

Strachan also said that the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010, which allowed corporations to spend an unlimited amount on political advertising, shifted campaign financing from being largely under candidates’ control to outside groups, like super PACs — political action committees — and nonprofit organizations.

“We have so much leeway for independent actors in the way we have structured campaigns,” Strachan said. “Maybe it’s not a good strategy for the candidate, but somebody that’s really angry — some group or organization that’s raised money — really wants to throw stones, they have free speech.”

Those outside groups can use that freedom of speech to say “negative things that aren’t a part of the official campaign strategy,” she said.

Ads sponsored by outside groups tend to be negative, while ads run by candidates’ campaigns tend to be positive, said Craig Mauger, the executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. The network is a nonpartisan organization focused on the impact of money on Michigan politics.

“With this flourishing amount of outside money coming in, a lot of that’s going to fund negative ads,” Mauger said. “That’s why you see so many negative ads right now.”

Independently funded attack ads can be useful for a candidate, Mauger said. Not only can the candidate be shielded from blame, but he said attacks tend to be more successful in affecting public perception than positive content.

“They tend to work — people often remember negative ads and they may be more effective than your normal, positive ad,” Mauger said. “If it’s an outside or independent group making the claim, it’s harder for the public to tie those attacks to the candidate.

“Also, if there are claims being made that are false or fuzzy or inaccurate, it’s harder to hold someone accountable because it’s an independent group that might be hard to pin down who’s actually behind it.”

Strachan said the public generally expects attack ads to be a part of the political process, minimizing the risk politicians take when going on the offensive. She added that, especially with an increasingly polarized political climate, candidates are willing to “cross the line” more often and go for personal attacks or name-calling.

“Historically, Americans have accepted that politicians are on different sides and have different opinions, ideologies and approaches,” Strachan said. “There’s a certain element of negativity that’s sort of inherent in hashing these things out.”

In 2013, Secretary of State Ruth Johnson proposed heightened disclosure rules for negative advertising. Taking issue with the impact of “dark money” — funding from anonymous donors — Johnson sought to end the exemption of “issue ads” from the state’s campaign finance rules.

Issue ads are allowed to support or attack a politician or cause anonymously, but cannot explicitly call for viewers to “vote for” or “elect” a certain ballot option.

On the same day Johnson announced that proposal, the Senate approved a bill by Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, to exclude advertising from campaign finance reporting “if the communication does not support or oppose a ballot question or candidate by name.”

A month later, the bill was signed by Gov. Rick Snyder, formalizing the ability of people or companies to fund unlimited political issue ads without public scrutiny.

Bills would make recounts harder in lopsided votes

Capital News Service

LANSING — Losers of Michigan elections would get a recount of the votes only in close races that they have a reasonable chance of winning under a bill proposed in the Legislature.

Rep. Jim Lilly, R-Park Township, hopes to tighten Michigan law after Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein filed for a recount in Michigan even though she lost the election by more than 2 million votes.

The legislation would change Michigan recount law to say that a candidate must have a reasonable chance of winning. Currently, the law allows any candidate to file for a recount.

Rep. Aaron Miller, R-Sherman Township, cosponsored the bill and said the decision to craft it was because of Stein and the hassle the recount presented to local clerks.

“Everybody agrees it was a nightmare, it was unneeded, it was a lot of work for nothing no matter what side they were on,” Miller said. “It was just a logistical nightmare.”

Miller said the bill would add another hurdle before a candidate could consider filing a recount.

“Just preventing something that was unreasonable from happening in the future was the goal of this legislation,” Miller said.

The recount filed by Stein was allowed after the Board of State Canvassers voted 2-2 that it  should take place. Attorney General Bill Schuette had asked the Michigan Supreme Court to block the recount because he felt it would cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

The state Court of Appeals later ruled the recount should not take place. It was stopped by a federal judge three days after the recount began.

The bill passed  the House 98-10 and referred it to the Senate’s Elections and Government Reform Committee.

The Michigan Association of County Clerks did not take a position on the bill, said Ottawa County Clerk Justin Roebuck, who sits on the association’s legislative committee. He said he understands the need for clarifying language.

The bill does not change how election clerks administer recounts, he said.

“We certainly process a recount petition filing and move forward with the recount process the same as we always have,” Roebuck said.

The bill could benefit clerks as it sets a standard of what constitutes a candidate with a legitimate gripe about an election, Roebuck said.

“I just think that’s good public policy in my personal opinion in terms of using taxpayer resources,” he said.

Fiscal analysis paired with the House bill said Stein would have paid $973,250 for a recount and the state would have paid almost $1.3 million.

Another bill introduced in the Senate would increase the cost candidates pay for recounts and save taxpayer money, Roebuck said. The bill recently passed the Senate and is now awaiting a vote by the House.

“From the clerk community, we kind of see that recount fee as a deterrent as well for someone who is truly not (aggrieved),” Roebuck said. “If you’ve lost by a significant margin, I think it would be difficult to reach the threshold of alleging that you truly could have won the election.

“I think that recount fee increase is sort of helpful for setting a standard as well for why a candidate would actually come to file,” he said.

A candidate who loses by more than 50 votes or 0.5 percent of the total votes now must pay $125 a precinct for a recount. The bill would require a candidate that lost by more than 75 votes or 5 percent of the total votes cast to pay $250 per precinct.

Miller said the Legislature almost tied the House and Senate bills together so he believes both should pass the opposite chamber easily. He also said he believes the governor will sign them into law.

Candidates who lose close elections shouldn’t be deterred from recounts, Roebuck said.

“We certainly want a candidate who has lost by a slim margin (to file a recount) and there’s a potential there for even a simple mistake to potentially overturn an election,” he said. “We want that candidate to be able to come to the table and make sure they have the right to a recount.”