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DeVos family pumps big bucks into GOP campaigns as Dems bemoan influence

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Dick DeVos

Lansing — U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos suspended her political giving when she joined the Trump administration in 2017, but her husband and other family members remain prolific GOP contributors as they donate vast sums prior to Tuesday's mid-term election.

The DeVos name has become a pejorative rallying cry for Democrats who bemoan the family’s long-running influence over state and federal education policy. But their continued political giving could be critical in Republicans retaining control of legislative or congressional chambers.

The powerful West Michigan family had donated a combined $7.6 million to candidates, political action committees and the Republican Party this cycle through Oct. 21, according to state and federal financial disclosures. Their giving is up about $40,000 from the same point in the 2014 mid-term despite Betsy DeVos' sabbatical. 

The $7.6 million total does not include political spending through non-profits linked to or controlled by DeVoses. Family members had also contributed $375,000 to the Republican Governor’s Association through the August primary, meaning they've given at least $7.9 million this cycle. 

Among individual Michigan donors, their combined contributions through early August trailed only Democratic gubernatorial candidate Shri Thanedar, according to an analysis by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. The Ann Arbor businessman spent nearly $11 million on his campaign but finished third in the primary.

Records show the family has contributed to every Republican at the top of the ticket on Michigan’s general election ballot, including U.S. Senate nominee John James, Bill Schuette for governor, Tom Leonard for attorney general and Mary Treder Lang for secretary of state.

DeVoses have also donated to most GOP congressional candidates in Michigan and a smattering of other U.S. House and Senate candidates across the country as Republicans fight to retain majorities. 

The family members have contributed to dozens of legislative candidates as Republicans seek to return majorities in the state House and Senate, and an education advocacy group funded by the family has already spent more than $260,000 to influence elections this cycle.

Seven DeVoses gave a combined $300,000 this spring to the Great Lakes Education Project, a family-affiliated advocacy group that spends heavily on legislative races. It pumped money into several GOP primaries this year in an attempt to benefit candidates who aligned with their education policy goals. 

While $10,000 may not sound like a massive contribution in a state Senate race, "a small amount of money can go a long way in a legislative primary," said Craig Mauger of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

"It's important for the public to be able to track who's giving money to support the office holders that are going to be sent to Lansing or Washington to make policy on the public's behalf."

Family's influence magnified

Betsy’s DeVos’ 2017 pledge that she and her husband would suspend political giving had Michigan Republicans sweating, said Lansing-based GOP consultant Tom Shields. But Dick DeVos only stopped federal contributions — records show he gave $248,000 to state candidates, caucuses and political committees this cycle — and other family members have picked up the slack.

The family’s influence on Republican Party politics extends beyond their own contributions, Shields said, noting they also help raise money from other major donors by sponsoring fundraisers.

“West Michigan tends to work together,” he said of GOP donors there. “So if you can get the DeVoses involved in your candidate or your issue early, then that usually brings a lot of contributions.”

With Betsy DeVos stepping back from fundraising, other family members “have had to step up and take a leadership role,” Shields said. Patriarch Richard DeVos, co-founder of Amway, died in September.

Betsy DeVos

Betsy DeVos, who spent decades pushing school choice policies and charter school expansion in Michigan, became a national lightning rod in early 2017 during a partisan confirmation process that saw political foes question her prolific history of partisan contributions and advocacy work.

Democrats up and down the ballot have invoked her name this fall on the campaign trail. Gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer has run television advertisement linking Republican opponent Bill Schuette to DeVos, whom he called a “smart and gifted leader in education” this year after a widely discussed interview on "60 Minutes."

“We don’t need a governor who is beholden to the DeVos agenda,” Whitmer said in October during her second televised debate with Schuette. She made the same connection in their first contest.

Family members have combined to give more than $48,000 to Schuette’s gubernatorial campaign after a handful had backed Lt. Gov. Brian Calley in the GOP primary. They’ve also contributed $25,000 to running mate Lisa Lyons, $40,800 to Treder Lang and $34,000 to Leonard.

Keeping political engagement

Attacks focused on the education secretary or her family point to “the shallowness of the Democratic message," said Greg McNeilly, a DeVos ally and GOP consultant who works for the family’s Windquest Group.

“They don’t really have anything they’re for,” he said, “and their sort of knee-jerk reaction to Betsy is just a byproduct of their intolerance and bigotry. They have a hard time relating to a strong woman who has spent her life selflessly in public service at her own expense.”

Patterns in DeVos family giving mirror past elections when they have supported Republican candidates at the state and federal levels, McNeilly said.

“They’ve maintained their level of engagement, and our democracy is better when more people are involved, whether their names are DeVos or Blue Cross,” he said, referencing the health insurance giant whose executives hosted a fundraiser for Whitmer in March.

The DeVos family has donated to all eight Republican incumbents in the U.S. House as they seek re-election but has not contributed in the 11th Congressional District race to replace retiring GOP Rep. Dave Trott. In that contest, Republican Lena Epstein is running against Democrat Haley Stevens for the open seat.

They’ve given more than $30,000 to challenger John James in his bid to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, and the Alticor company run by the DeVos and Van Andel families gave $50,000 to the “Outsider PAC” supporting James.

Denting the DeVoses

Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon said candidates are referencing Betsy DeVos this year because the public knows her “and they don’t like what she stands for or the policies that she and her family have pushed for a very long time.”

The education secretary has not received warm reviews from Michigan voters. In a September poll of 600 likely voters, 51 percent had an unfavorable view of DeVos, compared with 20 percent favorable. Roughly 60 percent of respondents said they disapproved of her performance 18 months after Vice President Mike Pence broke a tie vote in the Senate to confirm her. 

While DeVos and supporters argue that school choice policies help students escape struggling schools, “her name is synonymous with deterioration of traditional public schools and the buying of elections,” Dillon said. “I think that some people are recoiling from that more and more.”

DeVos family giving is materially different than contributions from unions, who continue to fund Democratic campaigns up and down the ticket, including Whitmer’s, he said.

“Unions that contribute have thousands and thousands of members and try to elect people that support collective bargaining,” he said, comparing it to the handful of DeVos family members who are able to “essentially fund” entire GOP caucuses.

McNeilly disagreed, arguing that contributions from individuals like the DeVoses are more meaningful than “morally bankrupt” donations from unions, whose members may not always support the candidates their bosses back.

“When individuals freely give to a political cause or person, I think that has more civic virtue and value,” he said. “I think democratic donors are to be applauded for their engagement — any donor. It’s a form of free speech. A form of activism.”

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Twitter: @jonathanoosting