Spending in Michigan governor race on ‘record-breaking’ pace

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Shri Thanedar speaks during the 2018 Annual Convention Gubernatorial Forum in East Lansing, Mich., Thursday, May 10, 2018.

Lansing — Ann Arbor entrepreneur Shri Thanedar has committed more than $10 million of his own money to campaign for Michigan governor as he seeks to gain ground in the final days of an expensive Democratic primary.

But Gretchen Whitmer, the front runner in the Democratic primary, led all other candidates from either party with $3.1 million in contributions for the Jan. 1-July 22 period, a haul her campaign said primarily came from small, in-state donors. She has now raised more than $6.2 million overall. 

Thanedar said Friday his campaign has already spent more than $9 million ahead of the Aug. 7 primary. He listed just $2.8 million in spending in a state disclosure report but said he is planning an amendment due to an error. The wealthy Indian immigrant has been flooding the state with television ads, mailers and billboards.

"I'm not Rick Snyder rich, and I'm not Donald Trump rich," Thanedar told The Detroit News. "I put a big chunk of what I've earned over the years into this campaign because I'm passionate about public service, and I'm passionate about trying to help others."

Term-limited Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, a business executive and venture capitalist before he went into politics, put roughly $6 million of his own money into his primary campaign in 2010. Republican businessman Dick DeVos had put $16 million of his own money into his 2006 campaign through the August primary, according to state records.

Democrats and Republicans running for governor this year have already raised a combined $33 million and spent $20 million, said Craig Mauger, a watchdog with the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. Outside groups have so far poured about $8.9 million into the race.

"Suffice it to say, with that amount of money, it's shaping up to be a record-breaking gubernatorial year," Mauger said, predicting spending through the November general election could surpass the $79 million spent in 2006.

Whitmer had nearly $2.9 million in the bank as of July 22 after spending about $4 million since launching her campaign in January 2017. The East Lansing Democrat's $6.2 million fundraising total means she is outpacing former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat who raised $5.7 million at the same point in 2002. 

Former Detroit health department director Abdul El-Sayed, endorsed this week by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, reported $260,000 in cash reserves despite solid fundraising numbers. The Shelby Township Democrat has raised more than $2 million this year and nearly $4 million overall, but his campaign has already spent most of that. 

On the Republican side, Attorney General Bill Schuette paced the field with $1.9 million in reported contributions, bringing his total to roughly $5 million so far. Schuette had spent $3.5 million through July 22, leaving his campaign with a $1.5 million balance.

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley raised more than $1.7 million for the period and has pulled in more than $3.1 million overall. But his campaign had already spent $2.9 million by July 22, leaving him with less than $127,000 in cash reserves in the final weeks before the primary.

Republican Jim Hines, a Saginaw obstetrician who is also self-financing his long-shot campaign, has pumped a total of $2.6 million into the race according to his pre-primary disclosure report. State Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton Township, raised a little more than $255,000 in the latest period and roughly $497,000 for the cycle.

Thanedar, who started and sold a chemical testing company in Ann Arbor after struggles forced him to sell a small business empire he had started in Missouri, has faced accusations he's trying to buy the election. And critics, including El-Sayed, have suggested Thanedar is not a real Democrat.  

But Thanedar called his personal contributions "pure money" that he earned himself. Competitors might be beholden to their donors, he argued. "Everybody is spending millions. It's not just me. It's just the source of that money."

Whitmer, endorsed by most traditional labor unions, reported a $68,000 contribution from the Michigan Laborers Political League and got $34,000 each from the Michigan Education Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

She also got $68,000 from the Bernstein Family political action committee. Ann Arbor attorney Mark Bernstein is part of a committee helping Whitmer vet potential running mates. Despite the large checks, the Whitmer campaign said 82 percent of her contributions were for under $100.

"Gretchen Whitmer has built an unprecedented coalition of grassroots support behind her campaign because people know that she’s the only candidate who can get things done that will actually make a difference in people’s lives right now," spokeswoman Nicole Simmons said in a statement. 

Whitmer raised $144,710 at a March 7 fundraiser in Detroit hosted by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Michigan executives. The health insurer’s PAC gave $15,000 to Schuette in June and $25,000 to a Snyder PAC that same month, according to state filings.

El-Sayed, a favorite of the progressive left who has criticized Whitmer for her ties to Blue Cross, got $20,000 from an American Pharmacy Purchasing Alliance PAC, but most of his funding came from individuals, many outside of Michigan. Hollywood actor and director Ben Affleck contributed $6,800 on July 21.

Schuette’s top donors included the Michigan Realtors PAC, which gave him $68,000, and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce PAC, which has donated more than $60,000 to his campaign this cycle. The Midland Republican, leading GOP primary polls, also got $6,800 contributions each from Doug, Suzanne and Richard DeVos.

Three other members of the powerful west Michigan family — Dan, Sydney and Pam DeVos — each gave $6,800 to Calley. A late contribution report shows the Portland Republican got maximum $6,800 donations from Snyder and First Lady Sue Snyder.

Calley this week also received $68,000 from a political action committee called Value for Michigan. The PAC, run by Calley campaign consultant John Yob, had cash reserves of just $152.80 as of July 20 and had not received a contribution all year. The source of the $68,000 gift to Calley is unknown, and Secretary of State Fred Woodhams said the PAC is not required to disclose any recent donors until its next reporting deadline in October.

Whitmer, El-Sayed, Calley and Schuette have each requested public funding for their primary campaigns, which the state provides at a 2-1 match rate on small contributions from Michigan residents up to $100.

As of Wednesday, Whitmer had submitted qualifying contributions for up to $1.1 million in public funding, but she will not receive that much. State law allows up to $990,000 per candidate, but the cap is $929,395 because of available funds.

El-Sayed had requested $808,316 in public financing through July 25. Calley had asked for $224,467, while Schuette had requested $211,329. The money comes from an optional $3 check-off on personal income tax returns.


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