Michigan donors help Walker's presidential run

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker announced Monday his Republican presidential candidacy, and his political survival and White House hopes have been boosted in part by generous Michigan donors and volunteers.

During the past five years, Republican donors in Michigan have sent at least $1.07 million to Walker's campaign coffers to help protect him from a union-driven recall and another failed effort to deny him a second term, Wisconsin campaign finance records show.

Walker returned the favor with swings through Michigan and personal meetings with some donors, including members of the influential and powerful DeVos family, who have chipped in at least $342,900 for Walker's campaigns.

Amway founder and family patriarch Richard M. DeVos made the largest single donation, contributing $251,000 to the $30.5 million Walker raised in 2012 as he became the first U.S. governor in history to survive a recall election.

"Walker really sought out contact with those who had supported him in the recall effort to make a connection and say thanks personally," said Republican consultant Greg McNeilly, a DeVos family political adviser.

The second-term governor is trying to leverage the relationships again to line up support in neighboring Michigan for his presidential campaign.

At this point, members of the DeVos family are neutral in the Republican presidential primary. But jockeying among the Republican presidential candidates for their support and financial aid from other heavy hitters in the Michigan GOP establishment has been underway for months.

Walker's campaign, led in Michigan by former state GOP co-chairwoman Sharon Wise, has signaled that winning delegates in the state's March 8 presidential primary could be key to helping him emerge as the Republican nominee in a crowded field of 15 candidates.

But Walker's play for Michigan could be complicated by Ohio Gov. John Kasich's expected entrance into the GOP presidential field later this month, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

"They have a Midwestern strategy," Sabato said of the Walker campaign. "They're trying to sell that as a plus for the general election as well."

David Dulio, chairman of the political science department at Oakland University, said Michigan will be "prime territory" for Walker, along with the Iowa caucuses.

"There's a lot of comparisons that can be made between Wisconsin and Michigan," Dulio said. "He might look at it as familiar territory where his message that he has used and built in Wisconsin can play here in Michigan."

'Bus loads' of volunteers

Wise, of Traverse City, said she met Walker at the Michigan Republican Party's leadership conference on Mackinac Island in September 2013. During a lunch-time speech at the biennial GOP confab, Walker railed against government dependency.

"When I met Gov. Walker for the first time, I walked away thinking 'This man could be my president,' " said Wise, a former Michigan GOP national committeewoman and ex-member of the State Board of Education.

Wise said she spent a week in central Wisconsin in the spring of 2012 volunteering for the Walker campaign in a recall election sparked by Walker's efforts to rein in collective bargaining rights for state workers.

The Michigan Republican Party helped recruit and send "bus loads" of volunteers to the Milwaukee area to help Walker defeat Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in the recall campaign, Wise said.

"He was willing to take on the tough issues and stand and fight for what he believed and take it to the end and not cave," she said.

Walker's Michigan donors include some of the state's most prominent business owners. PVS Chemicals Inc. CEO James B. Nicholson donated $10,000 to Walker's recall battle and another $10,000 last year in his re-election campaign. Six members of the Cotton family in Grosse Pointe Farms, who own Meridian Health and a stake in the Compuware building, contributed a combined $60,000 last year.

Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel "Matty" Moroun, his son Matthew and their wives contributed a combined $30,000 to Walker's 2014 re-election effort, according to records compiled by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a political funding watchdog group in the Badger State.

"Walker got a big leg up with the recall election because he became a hero to business conservatives," Sabato said.

Drew notice as county exec

Before being elected governor of Wisconsin in 2010, Walker spent eight years as executive of Milwaukee County, where he began getting noticed by national conservatives for his support of the expansion of public charter schools and vouchers for private schools, McNeilly said.

It created a reason for charter school supporters across the country to come to Walker's aid, McNeilly said.

"If you allow the bullies on the other side to take them down, then you've really set back your world view," McNeilly said.

McNeilly serves on the board of the pro-charter school organization Great Lakes Education Project with Betsy DeVos. She and her husband, Dick DeVos, the 2006 Republican gubernatorial nominee, each contributed $10,000 to Walker's re-election campaign in 2013.

Walker has confirmed he will attend the Sept. 18-20 Mackinac Leadership Conference, said Sarah Anderson, spokeswoman for the Michigan Republican Party.

Other presidential hopefuls who have committed to speaking at the conference are former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.