August 7, 2014 at 1:00 am

Big spending doesn't guarantee big results for some Mich. candidates

U.S. Rep. Justin Amash talks to his supporters at the Amway Grand Hotel in Grand Rapids on Tuesday night after challenger Brian Ellis conceded the race. (Dale G. Young / The Detroit News)

The candidacies of two of Michigan’s three self-funding millionaires went down in flames in Tuesday’s congressional primaries, demonstrating that money doesn’t always buy elections.

Saginaw County businessman Paul Mitchell forked over $4 million of his own fortune only to lose by 16 percentage points to state Sen. John Moolenaar of Midland, who benefited from a targeted, high-tech, get-out-the-vote operation and late support from establishment GOP stalwarts and tea party groups alike.

In west Michigan, businessman Brian Ellis’ $1 million spending spree aimed at matching U.S. Rep. Justin Amash’s fundraising prowess left him with a 10-point loss to the Republican incumbent.

Only Birmingham attorney Dave Trott’s $2.4 million gamble on unseating meagerly funded Rep. Kerry Bentivolio of Milford proved a good bet in Tuesday’s high-stakes Republican primaries.

“Sometimes people confuse spending money with running an effective campaign,” GOP consultant John Yob, who worked for Moolenaar, said in a post-election memo. “Mitchell started spending money on television in April and yet Moolenaar saved his resources for the final weeks.”

Stu Sandler, a Republican political consultant who worked for both Mitchell and Trott, said Mitchell was handicapped by being a relative newcomer with no political machine to lend him credibility in the sprawling 15-county 4th Congressional District in mid-Michigan.

Moolenaar was buoyed by the endorsements of the National Rife Association, Right to Life of Michigan, retiring U.S. Rep. Dave Camp and Attorney General Bill Schuette, who both hail from Midland. Schuette held the congressional seat before Camp.

“When they say this is the person best suited to succeed me, a lot of voters say ‘That’s a good endorsement. I really value that opinion,’” Sandler said Wednesday.

“Moolenaar was ready to rely on ready-made organizations.”

Mitchell’s TV ads started out introducing himself to voters and quickly pivoted toward attacking Moolenaar, sometimes making claims that distorted Moolenaar’s legislative record.

In the 11th Congressional District, Trott’s 11-month campaign to oust Michigan’s so-called “accidental” congressman involved building a grassroots network to counter Bentivolio’s supporters in the tea party movement.

“It’s not only money, but it’s also grassroots support, whereas Mitchell didn’t have time to do that,” Sandler said.

Trott also benefited from being known in Republican circles as a longtime donor, Sandler said.

Trott was unavailable for an interview Wednesday. He was busy making personal calls and emails to 400 core supporters who endorsed him, campaign manager Megan Piwowar said.

In the 3rd District, Ellis deployed a strategy similar to Trott’s, calling Amash’s votes “bizarre” because he doesn’t always vote in lock step with the House Republican majority.

“Ellis never leveled a credible charge against Justin,” said Greg McNeilly, a Grand Rapids Republican strategist who worked for neither candidate. “He tried to say Justin wasn’t conservative enough and that just didn’t stick.”

Down in the polls in recent weeks, the Ellis campaign reportedly tried to court Democratic and independent voters to cross over for him and help unseat Amash as the mudslinging continued.

Amash blasted Ellis’ “smears and lies” late Tuesday night in a campaign victory speech, WXMI-TV reported.

“To Brian Ellis, you owe my family and this community an apology for your disgusting, despicable smear campaign,” Amash said.

Ellis and Mitchell could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Republicans weren’t alone in having well-financed candidates who lost primaries Tuesday.

Dr. Anil Kumar, a Bloomfield Hills urologist, spent $610,000 of his own money trying to win the Democratic nomination in the 11th Congressional District. Kumar lost by less than 1,000 votes to Bobby McKenzie, a former U.S. State Department counter-terrorism employee who will face Trott in the general election.

“The political graveyard is filled with self-funding candidates,” said Lon Johnson, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party. “Money doesn’t buy elections.”

In Oakland County, 26-year-old attorney Ryan Fishman outspent his little-known Democratic opponent 18-to-1 only to see his bid for the state Senate come unraveled. Clawson school teacher Cyndi Peltonen defeated him by 10 percentage points in the 13th Senate District.

Fishman, who openly acknowledged he used to identify as a Republican, ran a professional-like campaign of door knocking, phone calls and pursuing voters who hadn’t returned their absentee ballots.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan stepped into the district to endorse Fishman, while Royal Oak Democratic U.S. Rep. Sander Levin and Oakland County Treasurer Andy Meisner recorded robo calls for him.

Spending $125,000 through late July, Fishman even mailed advertisements to Republican and independent voters as part of a strategy aimed at being a competitive general election candidate in a GOP stronghold this fall.

Peltonen acknowledges she spent little money and didn’t knock on any doors, though there were reports of organized labor helping turn out solid Democratic voters Tuesday in her favor. She said Fishman may have spent too much time and money raising campaign funds and lining up endorsements.

“The point of that is to turn those endorsements into votes — and that didn’t happen,” said Peltonen, who was endorsed by the powerful United Auto Workers union.

Fishman struggled Wednesday to explain the loss.

“There was a woman on the ballot in the Democratic primary and a former Republican,” Fishman said. “I think we could have raised $1 million and spent a $1 million in a Democratic primary, and the outcome would have been the same.”

clivengood@detroitnews.com
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Only Birmingham attorney Dave Trott's $2.4 million gamble on unseating ... (Clarence Tabb Jr / The Detroit News)
Bentivolio (Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)