Slotkin-Bishop race breaks Michigan record for campaign, outside spending

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Brighton, and Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly

A U.S. House race in Metro Detroit is already the most expensive congressional contest in Michigan history, and spending in the gubernatorial race is approaching record levels with three weeks left until Election Day.

A series of competitive House races, Democratic optimism for a wave election and a vigorous Republican defense is fueling a surge in individual donations and outside spending in races up and down the ticket.

The contest between Republican Rep. Mike Bishop of Rochester and Democrat Elissa Slotkin of Holly has drawn nearly $7.6 million in outside spending to date, on top of the $9 million raised by the candidates themselves, according to federal disclosures. 

That exceeds the previous record for a U.S. House race in Michigan set by Democrat Mark Schauer and Republican Rep. Tim Walberg in 2010, which totaled $14.15 million for the candidates' receipts and outside money, according to tracking by the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network. 

"That was before super PACs came in and started dominating," said Craig Mauger, executive director of the independent network, of the 2010 race. 

General election candidate fundraising hit $35.8 million in total receipts through Sept. 30, which is the most that U.S. House candidates have raised in Michigan, Mauger said. The previous high also was in 2010, when it reached $32.7 million, he said.

Other U.S. House races seeing an eye-popping amount of outside spending ahead of the Nov. 6 midterm elections include Michigan's 11th District ($3.77 million) — an open seat in the Detroit suburbs — and southwest Michigan's 6th District ($1.2 million), where longtime GOP Rep. Fred Upton is defending his seat. 

That outside spending, in addition to busy gubernatorial and state-level campaigns, has led to an explosion of political ads crowding the airwaves, especially in Metro Detroit. 

Michigan’s gubernatorial race has already drawn $61 million in campaign donations and outside spending, according to Mauger, with the next round of disclosures due next week. 

Spending in the governor’s race will soon surpass the $63 million spent in 2014 and could approach the record $79 million spent in 2006 when billionaire businessman Dick DeVos unsuccessfully challenged Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

“We could get close to that,” Mauger said of the spending record. “It’s hard to predict.”

Surge sends costs spiraling

The influx of spending by national groups is driving up the cost of advertising this cycle, said Adrian Hemond of Grassroots Midwest, a bipartisan consulting firm in Lansing that works for campaigns and various political action committees.

“The more money that is injected, the worse and worse the value gets,” he said of television airtime.

Lots of outside money also makes it a challenge for campaigns to put late contributions toward television or radio, Hemond said.

“Prices are going to go up as inventory fills up. That’s largely political (ads), but people are buying other stuff too — business or whatever," he said. 

Oakland County, where Slotkin and Bishop and others are duking it out, is also a major target for Democrats hoping to flip control of the state House.

Polls suggest affluent, college-educated white women in areas such as Oakland dislike President Donald Trump and are leaving the GOP.

“Oakland County is a key battleground because of the realignment that’s going on but also because it’s extremely expensive,” said Hemond, noting higher costs for television and radio in the Metro Detroit market. “Even cable in markets down there is expensive.”

Outside influence

The 8th District contest involving Bishop and Slotkin has seen spending from more than 15 outside groups — much of it for media buys, digital ads and direct mail.

The candidates have made campaign finance an issue in the race, with Slotkin criticizing Bishop for accepting corporate PAC donations, and Bishop slamming her out-of-state contributions from liberal and coastal "elites." Slotkin has raised $5.4 million to Bishop's $3.6 million through Sept. 30.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent more than $1.28 million and House Majority PAC, which has ties to Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, has spent $805,000 for ads attacking Bishop and direct mail. 

"It’s clear the national Democratic Party has identified this seat as one that they can buy, and they have put every bit of effort they can into it. I’ve never seen so much money being raised by a campaign at any level in such a short amount of time," Bishop said Tuesday. 

"The irony is that she’s in there giving us a lecture about special interest money, when in fact that’s all she’s done. Nancy Pelosi is the biggest special interest in the entire state right now," the congressman added. 

"So, yes, money’s an issue, but by no means can I be looked at as the issue here. She’s got to look in the mirror for a long, long time and figure out exactly where she’s coming from."

GOP and conservative groups are also pouring millions into the contest. The biggest outside spender in the 8th District is the National Republican Congressional Committee at $2.16 million through last week for ads attacking Slotkin. 

American First Action, a super PAC aligned with Trump's agenda, has spent nearly $760,000.

Other groups spending six figures in the district include the veterans group VoteVets, End Citizens United, Women Vote! and Independence USA PAC, which is affiliated with former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg. 

"Frankly, I’m really surprised. I never would have imagined a year and a half ago that I would be in a race that is this expensive, and I think it just reflects how tight it is," Slotkin said in an interview. 

"Particularly the national Republican PACs have come in in a huge way to make sure that they can 'defend their territory.' And then we’re responding in kind," Slotkin added. 

"It’s one of the deeply problematic parts of campaign finance in our country, and it’s why it’s a passion project for me."

Slotkin said she recently signed a letter to Democratic leaders with 100 other candidates, saying their first bill in the House should be campaign finance reform "because this is just — it’s too much," she added.

Bishop said he finds the political climate in 2018 to be "very different" than the past. 

"To me, the difference is that this is about the politics of division. It’s about dividing us and everything we stand for," Bishop said. 

"Everything that families are about — whether it’s race, religion, health care, whatever, gender — whatever it might be, and they’re using that fuel to try to get out their base — to get them to vote by making them angry and fearful."

Several of the same outside groups active in the 8th District are also spending big in the 11th, where Democrat Haley Stevens and Republican Lena Epstein are vying for the seat of retiring GOP Rep. Dave Trott of Birmingham. 

America First Action has spent $742,700 there; the DCCC has spent over $730,000; and House Majority PAC has spent nearly $475,000, according to FEC reports. The NRCC has not reported any expenditures to boost Epstein.

Bloomberg's Independence USA PAC and Women Vote!, which is affiliated with Emily's List, have each also spent over $500,000. 

Governor's race

Spending in the governor’s race was driven up by competitive primaries in both major parties and unsuccessful self-funded candidates, such as Ann Arbor businessman Shri Thanedar, a Democrat, and Saginaw obstetrician Jim Hines, a Republican.

Democratic nominee Gretchen Whitmer had raised more than $8 million and spent $6.5 million through the primary as of as of Aug. 7. Republican Bill Schuette had raised $6.5 million and spent around $4.9 million.

Both gubernatorial candidates are running television ads, but outside groups have also flooded the airwaves.

A new federal disclosure report shows A Stronger Michigan, a group linked to the Democratic Governors Association, had spent $7.9 million supporting Whitmer or opposing Schuette.

Three separate groups linked to the Republican Governors Association have combined to spend at least $3.8 million on the race, according to data compiled by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

Americans for Prosperity, a group linked to the billionaire Koch brothers, has reported spending $3.9 million on TV attack ads, mailers and other efforts to oppose Whitmer. 

Some attorney general, secretary of state, Michigan Supreme Court, state House and Senate candidates are also beginning to run ads on television and social media.

An estimated $4.3 million in TV ads had aired in state legislative races as of last Monday, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

The majority of that money — $2.4 million — was spent in races across four counties in southeast Michigan.