Michigan super PAC donors spend $5M on failed GOP bids

Chad Livengood and Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The powerful DeVos family of west Michigan spent more than $1.4 million supporting Republican presidential candidates who ended up dropping out of the race, according to the latest figures from the Federal Election Commission.

Republican presidential candidate U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), flanked by his family, speaks at a primary night rally on March 15, 2016 in Miami, Florida.  Rubio announced he was suspending his campaign after losing his home state of Florida to Republican rival Donald Trump.

Records show that nine DeVoses contributed a combined $500,000 to the Conservative Solutions super political action committee supporting Marco Rubio on Feb. 25 — the same day that Dick DeVos publicly announced his family’s support for the Florida U.S. senator in an exclusive interview with The Detroit News.

The DeVoses made the biggest combined contribution among wealthy Michigan individuals and executives who donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote Republican presidential hopefuls, many of whom eventually ended their campaigns after lackluster primary and caucus finishes.

Through the end of February, Michigan donors gave more than $6 million to super PACs influencing the presidential election this year, a Detroit News analysis of campaign donation records shows. About $5.2 million of it was spent on failed Republican candidates.

By contrast, Michigan donors gave substantially less to super PACs in the Democratic presidential race. Two pro-Hillary Clinton super PACs — Ready PAC and American Bridge 21st Century — received a combined $211,396 from Michigan donors through the end of February. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has shunned the use of super PACs in his campaign against Clinton.

The Rubio super PAC dumped $1.57 million into TV advertising in Michigan ahead of the March 8 primary — a last-minute blitz that proved to be ineffective as Rubio finished fourth and netted none of the state’s 59 delegates.

Republican strategist Greg McNeilly, a political adviser to the DeVos family, said big spending on super PACs hasn’t matched the free media Donald Trump receives in daylong news coverage.

“Are outcomes what people want? No, of course not. But that’s part of the great experiment,” he said. “This has been a process by which the rules don’t apply.”

Super PACs, McNeilly said, “haven’t made a difference anywhere for anyone.”

Big spending on super PACs that can take unlimited amounts of money has proved to be no match for Trump’s domination of earned media attention, which has been valued at nearly $2 billion by the television advertising-tracking firm SMG Delta.

“Donald Trump is unique in American history because of his ability to get unfiltered media coverage and be on cable news stations for hours a day delivering his message,” said Charlie Spies, a Washington elections law attorney.

“The value ... far outweighs anything that his opponents could hope to purchase,” Spies said.

Other big donors

Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert contributed $1.25 million to a super PAC supporting New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s failed candidacy.

Hedging his bets, Gilbert also donated $100,000 to New Day for America, the super PAC supporting Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is still campaigning for president but trails far behind Trump and Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in the nominating delegate count. The biggest giver to New Day was Peter Karmanos, co-founder of the Detroit-based Compuware Corp. and chairman of Mad Dog Technology in Birmingham, who chipped in $500,000.

Auto industry executive Roger Penske was one of the top Michigan donors to Jeb Bush’s Right to Rise super PAC, contributing $250,000 to the former Florida governor’s cause.

C. Michael Kojaian, who was finance chairman of Bush’s Michigan campaign, contributed $310,123 to the Bush super PAC.

Edward Levy, owner of a Dearborn-based construction materials company, contributed varying amounts totaling $135,000 to five separate super PACs supporting Kasich, Rubio, Bush, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who dropped out of the race in November.

DeVos family members also spread their wealth around as the crowded GOP presidential field winnowed down.

Family patriarch Richard DeVos gave $250,000 to the Rubio super PAC in January, when he donated the same amount to separate super PACs supporting Fiorina and Bush.

All told, the DeVos family gave $325,000 to the Bush super PAC and $5,400 to his official campaign committee.

Fiorina ended her White House bid on Feb. 10 after a poor showing in the New Hampshire primary, and Bush dropped out 10 days later after finishing fourth in the South Carolina primary.

Walker helped before, after

The DeVoses weren’t the only Michigan donors whose contribution to Bush and Fiorina’s super PACs failed to help them.

Early on, DeVos family members sent aid to the allies of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whom they supported in his past electoral battles to survive a 2012 recall and get re-elected in 2014.

Three DeVoses gave a combined $75,000 to a 527 political organization supporting Walker.

Family members gave another $8,100 to Walker this January, more than three months after he had dropped out of the race.

Spies, the Washington attorney at the Clark Hill law firm, worked on the 2012 super PAC that supported candidacy of former Massachusetts Gov. and Detroit native Mitt Romney’s Republican candidacy and Terri Lynn Land’s failed 2014 GOP U.S. Senate campaign in Michigan.

Just because super PAC spending hasn’t been effective in stopping Trump, he still expects the outside groups to play a pivotal role in Michigan’s 2018 gubernatorial and U.S. Senate campaigns.

“They got Mitt Romney through the primary in 2012,” Spies said. “And the Obama super PAC was viciously effective in attacking Mitt Romney in the general election.”

“Super PAC advertising has been effective in the past and I think will be effective in the future,” he said.

Biggest donors

DeVos family: $1.4M (to super PACs supporting John Kasich, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina and Bobby Jindal)

Dan Gilbert: $1.35M ($1.25M to super PAC supporting Chris Christie, $100K to one supporting Kasich)

Peter Karmanos: $500K (to super PAC supporting Kasich)