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.


Not every lawmaker is a campaign rainmaker

Capital News Service

LANSING — The average legislator in Michigan raised more than $50,000 to run for office in 2017, but not all focused on big contributions.

In fact, 16 lawmakers raised less than $5,000 last year, according to a Spartan Newsroom analysis of campaign finance records. Three raised less than $500 each.

Candidates have three main sources of funding: individuals, political parties and political action committees commonly known as PACs.

A PAC is a tool that businesses, labor unions and other interest groups use to raise money for candidates in hopes of influencing public policy.

Individuals can donate a maximum of $1,000 to a campaign. But PACs can donate 10 times as much, up to $10,000. They’re controversial because of the large influence they can give to the candidate who distributes the funds.

Although he’s running for a third — his final one allowed under term limits — a as a state representative, Republican Aaron Miller of Sturgis raised only $150 for his reelection campaign. He chooses not to accept PAC contributions as a reflection of his political views and lifestyle.

“After my [first] primary in 2014, I had a few independent PACs donate money,” said Miller, who chairs the House Elections and Ethics Committee. “After that I made a commitment, which I have honored to this day, not to accept PAC money from that point forward.

“It was a [decision] I thought about by myself, with my wife and with my campaign manager,” Miller said.

“I ran to be a regular guy and I asked myself, ‘How can I be different from the pack?’ The thing I thought that would best demonstrate myself and my character to the public would be to not accept PAC money,” he said.

For his first election, Miller raised money from family, friends and other small contributors. Some people make fun of the small amounts he raises, he said, but “I would say I have to be doing something right to have been here so long.”

It may put him at a financial disadvantage not to take PAC money, he said, but “I would say that I am not a prolific money raiser to begin with.”

Betsy Coffia unsuccessfully ran for a House seat in 2014 and 2016. She also took no PAC money. She didn’t even take money from her own party.

Campaigning without the money from big donors actually attracted voters to her, she said. It was an important plank of her platform.

“I initially ran because of the issues I saw with how campaigns are financed,” said Coffia, a Democrat from Traverse City. “I see big money as corroding to the political process. I ran with only individual contributions, which was tough because that meant my only means of fundraising starting out was going door-to-door spreading my message.”

But there are advantages, she said. “I found that if I told voters that I had no donations from big-money donors, that opened them up to listen to the rest of my ideas.”

Competitors outspent her 3 to 1.

“Instead of paying for costly advertising campaigns, we did meet-and-greet sessions with our constituents without asking for money,” Coffia said. “We wanted our events to be open to everyone, and people responded well to that.”

Coffia lost but outperformed the national Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016 by 3 percent in the district, she said.

“I’ve experienced the difference in lawmakers who are money-oriented as opposed to people-oriented,” Coffia said. “We all pay their salaries, so we as citizens should get the same respect from them as lobbyists.”

There are good and bad qualities about PACs, said David Waymire, a former political journalist who is now a partner in Martin Waymire, a Lansing public relations firm.

“If you have 110 members of the House and 38 Senate members all pushing their own agendas, (lawmaking) can get very messy and sometimes nothing will get done,” Waymire said. “The influence of PACs can help to push things forward. However, this does give a lot of control and power to a few individuals.

“I don’t believe PACs have been particularly good for Michigan,” Waymire said. “You know what they say about absolute power.”

And not many people are watching which groups are contributing, some experts say.

James Bebarski, a former campaign manager for Casey O’Neill, an unsuccessful Republican candidate for a Grand Rapids seat in the House in 2016, said lack of interest in state races makes it easy for candidates to take money from PACs unnoticed.

“Most people cast their votes in state elections based on which name they remember from the primary elections,” Bebarski said. “Voters either don’t pay attention to where funding comes from, or they don’t really care enough to let it affect their vote.

“If I was running for the state Legislature, I would want as much PAC money as possible,” he said, adding that he wishes campaign finance records were a bigger focus in the election process.

“If more people take the time to check into their candidates and see where the finances are coming from, they won’t be as surprised when their lawmaker passes a bill with the interest of their donors in mind,” Bebarski said. “It’s on the voters to do their due diligence if we want to see any real changes in the way finances are raised.”

Ian Hawley 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.

Female candidates outraised men

Capital News Service

LANSING — On average, female legislators in Michigan outraised their male counterparts in contributions to their own campaigns by more than $6,000 last year.

That’s despite the fact that women may face more fundraising challenges than men, said A’Shanti Gholar, the political director of Emerge America, a national group in Washington, D.C., that  encourages women to run for office.

“When a woman decides to run, she may have a harder time raising money,” Gohlar said. “And she is most likely going to have a deficit in fundraising.”

Despite the hurdles, Gholar said that she’s unsurprised that Michigan’s female lawmakers were able to outraise men if they had the right tools and met the right criteria as candidates.

Female state lawmakers on average raised around $58,000 in 2017 to finance their campaigns, according to a Spartan Newsroom analysis of campaign finance records. Male lawmakers collected roughly $52,000 on average.

The woman who raised the most money was Rep. Holly Hughes, R-Montague, who raised $308,877. That included $250,000 of her own money.

Hughes didn’t respond to repeated requests for an interview.

Political experts say raising money is less of a problem for women than the challenge of getting more women to run.

“Research shows that women running for office are doing just as well as men,” said Jessica Kelly, the program and leadership director of Running Start, another Washington-based national organization that encourages and trains women to run for office. “They are just not running as often.”

A smaller percentage of  funding for women lawmakers comes from political action committees (PACs)  than the proportion for male lawmakers, according to the analysis.

The analysis examined the records of 37 female and 109 male lawmakers. It found that 56 percent of the money raised by men came from PACs. At the same time, about 49 percent raised by women came from PACs.

The difference may have more to do with seniority than gender, said Mark Grebner, an East Lansing political consultant.

“I think the biggest reason women don’t take as much PAC money right now is because right now there are no women who are in key leadership roles where they are controlling PAC fundraising, ” said Grebner, the founder of Practical Political Consulting.

Two female lawmakers in leadership roles are House Democratic Floor leader Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills, who raised $55,304, and Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton, president pro tempore of the Senate,who raised $50,626.

PAC contributions are to a large extent organized by people behind the scenes and not about backing candidates because they agree with them, Grebner said.

“PAC money, almost none of it, has anything to do with supporting a person just because they think he/she is doing a good job,” Grebner said. “People who control money, they are visibly moving money around and what you’re seeing is just the surface of it.”

Despite the differential in PAC contributions, women raise more total funds on average than men, according to the analysis. It may be because they have to work harder to get elected.

Rep. Kristy Pagan, D-Canton, said she faced challenges when running because voters typically see men as political candidates and not women. That made it harder to raise money.

Pagan said she had to campaign twice as hard as her male counterparts.

“I used every single moment I had wisely because I also had a full-time job,” she said. “I wanted to optimize bringing as many people as I could into the campaign using cutting-edge technology.”

Running for office presented challenges because voters didn’t see her as a “traditional” candidate, she said. She had to  make a compelling case to show them that she was serious.

Now, Pagan says she hopes to help get money out of politics and focus on more important things.

“I should be doing research on legislation or reading bills,” Pagan said. “But I also have to incorporate raising money for resources that I need just to stay in office.”  

Natalie Dymkowski writes for Spartan Newsroom.