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Richard Burr and Jonathan Oosting look at the state of Michigan's gubernatorial campaign. Jonathan Oosting, Detroit News Lansing Bureau

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Lansing — Democrats Gretchen Whitmer and Abdul El-Sayed are seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars in public funding to fuel their competing campaigns for Michigan governor.

They are the first candidates to ask for public financing ahead of this year's Aug. 7 primary. But Republicans Bill Schuette, Brian Calley and Pat Colbeck have each told the state they could make similar requests in the next seven weeks.

Neither Whitmer nor El-Sayed will be subject to a $2 million spending cap for publicly funded candidates, which the state waived when fellow Democrat Shri Thanedar began pumping nearly $6 million of his own money into the race. 

The three Michigan Democrats are set to share the stage Wednesday for the first of two televised debates organized by their party. The hour-long debate will begin at 7 p.m. at WOOD-TV studios in Grand Rapids and may be broadcast or live streamed by several stations across the state, including WDIV-TV in Detroit.

Michigan makes public funding available to all gubernatorial candidates, who can typically qualify for up to $990,000 for the primary through 2-to-1 matches on small contributions from state residents, up to $100 each. The money comes from an optional $3 check-off on income tax returns.

The system is “intended to encourage candidates to get money from a broader base of donors and allow candidates who don’t have great personal wealth another mechanism to try to compete,” said Craig Mauger of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

But the 42-year-old program has “not kept up with the changing role of money in politics,” Mauger said, noting the influence of outside groups that are spending large sums. Gubernatorial candidates are lobbying donors small and large in an attempt to “get money anywhere they can get it” for increasingly expensive campaigns, he said.

Who benefits more?

In the Democratic primary, the 2-1 match on donations up to $100stands to benefit Whitmer more than El-Sayed because she has raised more money from more Michigan donors.

Whitmer raised roughly $3 million in 2017, and nearly $2.5 million of that came from Michigan residents, according to state records reviewed by The Detroit News. El-Sayed generated $1.9 million by the end of 2017, but more than $930,000 of that came from out-of-state donors.

Whitmer filed a public funding application this month that includes an estimated $397,904.40 in qualifying contributions that could allow her to access a match of $795,808.80 for the primary. The state is reviewing the application.

El-Sayed, a former Detroit health director who now lives in Shelby Township, first requested public funding in April and has qualified for $323,379.52. He filed a third request on Friday, listing an estimated $53,162.82 in qualifying contributions that could net him another $106,325.64 in public financing.

Whitmer's qualifying contributions show "she is building a strong grassroots movement that is powered by regular Michiganders all across the state," said spokesman Zack Pohl. "We have more than 9,800 grassroots donors, with 82 percent coming from in-state and 82 percent donating less than $100."

Pohl noted the primary features a "very wealthy opponent" in Thanedar and that Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group linked to billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, recently launched a $1.7 million television ad campaign attacking Whitmer, a former Senate minority leader from East Lansing.

"Public funding will allow us to communicate with more voters about Gretchen's plan to get things done as Michigan's next governor, like fixing the damn roads."

El-Sayed supports moving Michigan toward 100 percent publicly funded campaigns, said spokesman Adam Joseph. The system gives "candidates like Abdul who are supported by everyday Michiganders the ability to compete with the millionaires and corporate politicians who usually run for office."

Joseph pointed out Whitmer is benefiting from a $1.8 million TV ad blitz paid for by a supporter-run group that can accept unlimited union or corporate funds. That “insults the spirit of public financing and, frankly, public service," he said.

Michigan is one of 14 states with a public funding option for political campaigns, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Funds are typically provided in exchange for “a promise" to limit candidate spending, but Michigan waives limitations if another candidate puts at least $340,000 into the race.

The system dates back to 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled  political spending caps are unconstitutional except for campaigns subsidized by the government. Michigan law requires candidates to raise at least $75,000 in private contributions to be eligible for public funds.

Democrat Mark Schauer turned heads in 2014 when he sought public funding for the primary even though he ran unopposed. Schauer qualified for the full $990,000 but did not request financing for his losing general election campaign against Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.

Four years later, Thanedar’s aggressive spending waived the spending cap for his primary opponents. The Bureau of Elections notified Whitmer and El-Sayed last summer that they would not have to abide by the $2 million limit if they accepted public funding.

GOP spending cap lifted

The spending cap was also lifted in the Republican primary because of self-financing by Saginaw obstetrician Jim Hines, who has sunk more than $670,000 of his own money into the race last year, according to state disclosure reports.

A Calley campaign spokesman said the lieutenant governor from Portland is "currently planning" to seek public financing. Colbeck, a Canton Township state senator, "will take advantage of all funding sources" now that the spending cap has been lifted, his campaign said.

Schuette strategist John Selleck said the attorney general from Midland is "proud of the wide grassroots support" he has received. The campaign has "indicated we may submit those qualifying contributions, but beyond that we do not comment on our internal campaign strategy."

Gubernatorial candidates can receive up $990,000 in public financing for the primary and $1.125 million for the general election. But allocations depend on how much money the state has left in a reserve fund that lawmakers drained to balance the budget in 2007.

Primary candidates this year can qualify for up to $929,395, said Secretary of State spokesman Fred Woodhams. Thanedar and Hines do not qualify, but the state has $4,646,975 available to split between the other five candidates.

“Treasury already reserved money for the general election for both major and minor party candidates, and then what’s left is available for primary candidates,” Woodhams explained.

Like Thanedar, Snyder pumped millions of his own money into his first gubernatorial campaign eight years ago, which waived the primary spending cap for publicly financed candidates in the Republican primary. Funding was limited in 2010 because lawmakers used $7.2 million in state reserves to plug an unrelated budget hole. 

Former Attorney General Mike Cox received $346,639.08 in public funding and spent more than $3.2 million on his third-place primary campaign, according to state records. Former U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Holland, who finished second to Snyder, got $512,111.45 in public funds and spent more than $2 million in the primary.

Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard also qualified for $186,487.31 in public funding for the 2010 GOP primary. Former state Sen. Tom George received $91,176.50.

Democrat Virg Bernero got $267,076.90 for the 2010 primary, which he won over former House Speaker Andy Dillon, along with $1.125 million for his general election campaign against Snyder, who won by more than 18 percentage points.

joosting@detroitnews.com

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