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Michigan elections are a multi-million-dollar business

HOUGHTON — Groups acting outside of the candidates’ campaigns were responsible for about half of the money in the 2018 campaign for Michigan governor, according to a March 11, 2019, article of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN). Of the $93 million that poured into the race between Republican Bill Schuette and Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, nearly one-third of those funds cannot be traced to original sources. The report stated that while both candidates survived expensive primary races “before a three-month dash to the general election,” that final dash saw a deluge of money outside money pour into the state.

Whitmer’s campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor was aided by $550,000 in concealed donations from two entities that do not appear to exist in public records, stated a July 31, 2018, article in crainsdetroit.com, while Schuette’s bid for the Republican nomination in the August primary was also helped by $1.2 million in untraceable donations flowing from two so-called “dark money” front organizations that can legally conceal the identities of their donors.

The Craine’s Detroit Business news website article went on to state that in Whitmer’s case, an organization called Build a Better Michigan, that aired $1.8 million on TV ads for her benefit, received a $300,000 donation from the Progressive Advocacy Trust in East Lansing and $250,000 from the Philip A. Hart Democratic Club in Mt. Clemens.

The most active outside spenders in the 2018 primary election were Better Jobs, Stronger Families, a super PAC that spent $2.5 million to benefit Schuette, Build A Better Michigan, a political organization that spent $2.4 million to benefit Whitmer, and Calley Continues Comeback, a super PAC that spent $960,713 to benefit Calley, the MCFN reported on March 11, 2019.

During Summer, 2018, the state Republican Party and the Michigan Freedom Fund filed a complaint with the state against Whitmer’s campaign committee and super PAC Build a Better Michigan (BBM), which spent more than $2.7 million supporting Whitmer during the 2018 election cycle, bridgemi.com reported on Feb. 8, 2019. The complainants stated that the group violated state campaign finance rules by engaging in direct advocacy for Whitmer without disclosing (its) spending as “in-kind” contributions to the Whitmer campaign. If counted as in-kind contributions, spending would have violated state law by exceeding the cap on contributions from a single source. BBM is organized under section 527 of the IRS code that allows it to accept unlimited contributions from unions or corporations. But unlike other nonprofit campaign organizations, it is required to disclose donors.

Upholding the complaints by Republicans, Benson determined that both BBM and Whitmer’s campaign committee violated campaign finance law by engaging in express advocacy in both respects: by using the word “candidate” in front of Whitmer’s name and in urging voters to act (“tell your legislators, let’s get it done”) in BBM-funded ads during the 2018 election cycle. The group did not comply with campaign finance rules that apply to groups engaging in express advocacy.

Already in trouble during that summer, facing accusations that it was hiding donors until after the Aug. 7 gubernatorial primary, BBM released the identity of those who donated more than $2.23 million to the group, bridgemi.com reported on July 23, 2018. The article stated that the list includes nearly $2 million from union groups, affiliates and progressive organizations, more than $150,000 from individuals and nearly $90,000 from businesses.

“Who is on the list released Monday is no particular shock,” stated the Bridge Mi. article, “it’s dominated by big labor and Democratic groups.”

Top labor contributors include the Drive Committee, a Teamsters PAC, which gave $250,000; the United Auto Workers V Cap of Detroit, which gave $250,000; the Michigan Laborers District Council of Lansing, which gave $151,000; and the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters, which gave $150,000, the article reported, stating further:

The individual donors include Seattle resident Richard Barton, who appears to be a former Microsoft executive and founder of Zillow and Expedia, who gave nearly $48,000; and Mark Bernstein, a member of the University of Michigan Board of Regents and managing partner of The Sam Bernstein Law Firm, who gave $32,000.

Democrat candidates are not alone in profiting from dark money.

On July 2, 2019, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) reported that a voluntary corporate political disclosure showed that Dow, a chemical manufacturing giant, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in dark money to support former Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s unsuccessful run for governor of Michigan in 2018.

“This is the third statewide election in a row in which Dow has spent big to support Schuette,” the Crew article stated, “who has deep ties to the company, while keeping its spending secret until long after Election Day.”

The disclosure reveals, CREW stated, that in 2018, Dow gave $500,000 to the dark money nonprofit Fund for Michigan’s Tomorrows. That group gave $300,000 to the Better Jobs Stronger Families PAC, a Super PAC supporting Bill Schuette’s campaign. Fund for Michigan’s Tomorrows also spent over $900,000 on ads benefiting Schuette in the Republican primary.

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