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Mystery group attacking Whitmer in Dem primary has GOP links

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau
Screen of an online ad by a mysterious group called Priorities for Michigan

Grand Rapids — A mysterious group running online ads attacking Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Gretchen Whitmer from the political left appears to have connections to several Michigan Republicans.

A new “Priorities for Michigan” ad criticizes Whitmer for failing to support a single-payer health care system backed by her rivals in the Democratic primary and for accepting “big money” from insurance companies, a reference to a fundraiser hosted by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan executives.

Priorities for Michigan is not listed in state campaign committee or business incorporation records. But as first noted by longtime Whitmer ally Bob McCann, the group was previously listed as a sponsor of a Republican-aligned website seeking to elect more women to office.

GOP State Rep. Sue Allor of Wolverine, former Michigan House Speaker Jase Bolger and conservative strategist Tony Daunt of the Michigan Freedom Fund are among the "coaches" listed on a League of Our Own website that previously included a “paid for by Priorities for Michigan” disclaimer.

Allor, identified as a “campaign operations” coach on the site, said Friday she has attended a few League of Our Own meetings but is not a primary organizer. She told The News she has “never heard” of Priorities for Michigan.

Bolger and Daunt did not return calls seeking comment.

Democrats Abdul El-Sayed and Shri Thanedar are running to the left of Whitmer and have jabbed her for failing to support a state or national Medicare-for-all health care system. Both campaigns on Thursday denied any connections to the mysterious group running the new online ads. 

Whitmer spokesman Zack Pohl accused Republicans of creating a “fake Democratic super PAC to smear” her ahead of the Aug. 7 primary.

Pohl suggested a connection between the powerful DeVos family of West Michigan, which has ties to both Bolger and Daunt. 

“Republican billionaires … must really be scared” of Whitmer, Pohl said, noting the former Senate minority leader from East Lansing worked across the aisle on a 2013 law that expanded Medicaid eligibility and now covers more than 680,000 people.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos pledged in early 2017 that she and her husband Dick would suspend their political contributions during her tenure under President Donald Trump. State disclosure records show Dick DeVos last year contributed $3,000 to the Michigan Chamber of Commerce PAC and $2,000 to the Friends of West Michigan Business Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce PAC.

The League of Our Own website also lists several other Republican operatives and officials. An email sent to the group Thursday afternoon was not returned, and a DeVos family spokesman was not available.

Craig Mauger, a watchdog with the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, said he was not able to identify Priorities for Michigan in state or federal records. It’s either new or unknown, he said.

“The situation shows how groups — who knows where they’re getting their funding from – can just fly completely under the radar,” Mauger said.

Backers do not have to disclose “issue advocacy” spending in Michigan if the ads do not direct viewers to vote for or against a candidate.

“Those online ads are so cheap, it’s unlikely they’re spending that much,” Mauger said. 

McCann, who worked for Whitmer as a spokesman in the state Senate but is not on her campaign, said he first spotted the ad Wednesday when he was scrolling on an unrelated news website. 

It sounded like “talking points” from one of Whitmer’s Democratic primary opponents, MCCann said. “I was trying to figure out who this group was," he said.

The Whitmer campaign and a 527 political organization run by allies are running positive television touting her candidacy and experience. 

Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group linked to libertarian-leaning industrialists Charles and David Koch, is running television ads attacking Whitmer, the early favorite in the Aug. 7 Democratic primary.

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Twitter: @jonathanoosting