Trump, Sanders get big bucks from Michigan donors as presidential race ramps up

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
President Donald Trump kicked off a week of events to promote the 2017 tax law Monday in Minnesota, a potential swing state in 2020.

President Donald Trump's record fundraising numbers to start the year included a strong showing among donors in Michigan, where the first-term Republican outpaced a large field of Democratic candidates preparing for a primary fight. 

Trump raised $350,000 from Michigan and $30 million nationally during the first three months of 2019, easily surpassing top Democrats hoping to challenge him in the 2020 general election, according to itemized contribution records required for donors who have given at least $200 so far. 

It is a stark contrast with 2016, when Trump relied on free media and raised less money than his Republican primary opponents and their associated super political action committees. He was similarly outraised among Michigan donors by Democrat Hillary Clinton and affiliated super PACs in the general election campaign.

Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders nearly doubled fundraising totals from other Democrats in Michigan with nearly $70,000 in itemized contributions. The self-declared democratic socialist was followed by California U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris at more than $35,600 and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg with nearly $30,000. 

Sanders and Harris also raised the most money among Democrats nationally — $18.2 million and $12 million, respectively.

U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey each raised more than $20,000 from Michigan donors.

The spiritual book author Marianne Williamson, a former resident of Metro Detroit, raised $19,000 in the state — more than bigger-name candidates such as Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, both of whom campaigned last month in Michigan.

Michigan is poised to be a battleground state for the 2020 election and key to some candidates' campaign strategies. Several hopefuls have already made campaign trips to the Great Lakes State, including Trump, who held a rally in Grand Rapids last month, and Sanders, who rallied last weekend in Macomb County.

Trump is expected to continue building his war chest as Democrats burn money competing for their party’s nomination. The Democrats have scheduled a presidential debate — the second of the primary — for Detroit in July.  

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a town hall with black lawmakers, Thursday, April 18, 2019, in Spartanburg, S.C. Ahead of the event, Sanders announced 2020 campaign endorsements from seven black South Carolina lawmakers, a show of force in state where black voters comprise more most of the Democratic primary electorate.

Donors for Trump, Sanders

Notable Trump donors in the first quarter included maximum contributions from Grand Rapids businessman Peter Secchia, former U.S. Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land and husband Dan Hibma, as well as financial planner Ron Wiser of Kalamazoo.

John Kwarsick of Westland made a dozen small-dollar donations to Trump in the first quarter and so far has given nearly $450 to the president’s re-election campaign. 

“He’s a good man, and the other people are full of crap as far as I’m concerned,” said Kwarsick, a retired food service consultant. “I think he’s the man to get the job done.”

Sanders narrowly won Michigan's 2016 presidential primary, and Democratic National Committee member Michelle Deatrick of Ann Arbor said she feels an "even greater energy" surrounding his campaign this time. 

"I think that Bernie's life, his policies and his connection with people who are facing devastating economic and social circumstances make him uniquely positioned to win in 2020 — and I want him to," said Deatrick, who made four separate contributions to Sanders in the first quarter. 

Sanders topped the national small-dollar donation race among Democratic primary candidates, who are increasingly eschewing big donors and corporate political action committee contributions as they fight for grassroots bragging rights.

Michigan donors gave Sanders at least 852 contributions averaging $82 each. Many supporters gave to his campaign multiple times in repeated amounts as small as $1.

Trump also did well with small donors in Michigan, where the average itemized contribution to his re-election campaign totaled $63.

Bumps for Buttigieg, Harris

Buttigieg’s strong support in Michigan reflects a national bump he’s seen in media coverage and financial donations in recent weeks.

George Tsebelis, a political science professor at the University of Michigan, donated $100 to Buttigieg in March. He said he used to live in South Bend before moving to Michigan two years ago.

Tsebelis likes that Buttigieg has executive experience as a mayor and has focused on issues of character, even if he’s holding off on more significant policy proposals for later.

“He was very instrumental in the revival of South Bend. He changed the tax laws so people would open stores in the middle of downtown,” Tsebelis said. “He is unusually wise for his age, and he impressed both myself and my wife.”

Tsebelis noted how Buttigieg, 37, has reacted to anti-gay heckling during recent campaign stops by shutting down the protesters with his response: 

"The good news is the condition of my soul is in the hands of God, but the Iowa caucuses are up to you," Buttigieg told a crowd Tuesday in Des Moines, Iowa. 

Tsebelis said: "It shows an extraordinary maturity. I wish that some older people would have that maturity."

Jeffrey Learned of Novi donated $1,000 to Harris in February. Learned, an independent who mostly votes Democratic, said Harris is close in line with his political views — socially liberal and more conservative on criminal justice issues.

“I like her because she’s extremely sharp. I’m an attorney, and I’ve been very impressed watching her questioning as a member of the Judiciary Committee,” said Learned, who offered the hearing for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh as an example.

“Frankly, I think it’s time for a woman to be president. I thought it was four years ago, too.”

As a woman and African American, Harris could appeal to many demographic groups and is not considered a “left-wing progressive” like some other candidates, Learned said.  

“I know she’s essentially endorsed Medicare for All, but I think that’s inevitable, combined with the ability for people to keep private insurance,” he said.

“In general, her more balanced views will appeal to more voters in the Rust Belt states.”

Spiritual guru gains cash

Williamson’s early Michigan fundraising haul appears to reflect a local following the self-help author and new-age lecturer developed during her time in Metro Detroit. She led Renaissance Unity Church in Warren from 1998 to 2002 before leaving amid disagreements with some board members after she severed ties with Association of Unity Churches.

Dennis Mazurek, an attorney in the Detroit city clerk’s office, gave Williamson more than $5,400 total for her primary and potential general election campaigns. He said he has known Williamson for about 20 years and attended several of her lectures. 

“Her audience is going to grow, and she's going to get more and more support," Mazurek predicted. "She speaks to people's minds and hearts, and I think she has that special insight that I think people are going to gravitate towards."

Williamson, who now lives in California and unsuccessfully ran for Congress there in 2014, reported 36 individual contributions from Michigan residents averaging roughly $527 each.

Toni Bunton of Grosse Ile Township, a health and wellness mentor and prison reform advocate who spent time behind bars, donated $2,700 to Williamson’s primary campaign.

“I had the honor of meeting Marianne at one of her speaking events — more than a decade ago here in Michigan — and have followed her since,” Bunton said in an email. “She’s a wonderful human being.”