Political newcomer prompts big spending in Macomb's GOP U.S. House primary

Craig Mauger Keith Laing
The Detroit News

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Kimberly Bizon, one of the Democratic candidates running in the 10th District. 

A Sunday dinner with family gathered around the table helped launch Republican Lisa McClain's unexpected campaign for the U.S. House in a Metro Detroit district.

McClain, a businesswoman from Bruce Township, is a self-described "100%" supporter of President Donald Trump and "political junkie" who had never run for office before. Over dinner in early October, she and her family were griping about politics when her daughter, Ryan, 17, asked a question.

"My youngest looked at me and said, ‘Well, mom, if you don’t like it, why don’t you get in there and do something about it?’” McClain recalled.

Lisa McClain is a businesswoman and newcomer to politics who is competing for the GOP nomination to replace U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell, who decided against running for reelection, in Congress. She is seen at her desk in her Bruce Township home on Tuesday, July 28, 2020.

Ten months later, the 54-year-old businesswoman's unanticipated foray into politics has sparked Michigan's most expensive congressional primary of the year as she and two other major candidates wage a battle over the airwaves. The fight is in the 10th Congressional District, a Republican-leaning area that spans a portion of northern Macomb County and the Thumb.

U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden, who holds the seat, decided against running for reelection after serving two terms.

The other GOP candidates are Doug "Odie" Slocum, a former commander at the Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Macomb County, and state Rep. Shane Hernandez, R-Port Huron, who many analysts see as the favorite to win.

Groups acting outside of the candidates' campaigns have already poured more than $2 million into the race, according to federal disclosures. Much of the money has been spent on negative television and radio ads.

Hernandez, 37, serves as chairman of the Michigan House Appropriations Committee and has been involved in state politics for years. He has won the backing of the U.S. Club for Growth Action, which has spent $1.5 million supporting him or opposing McClain.

He's also been endorsed by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Mitchell, who said he decided to back Hernandez after seeing the "tactics" of McClain's supporters. They levied attacks that were "misrepresentations at best and outright lies at worse," Mitchell said.

Rep. Shane Hernandez, R-Port Huron

In the past six months, the U.S. House has weighed impeaching Trump, a potential armed conflict with Iran and the COVID-19 pandemic, the congressman added.

"That was just the first six months of the year," Mitchell said. "This is a serious job for people who are serious people and who are able to wade through all of the noise, and I just don’t believe that she’s capable of doing that.”

The winner of the 10th District GOP primary on Tuesday will be considered the heavy favorite in the general election. In 2018 — a year Democrats won Michigan's top three statewide offices — Mitchell was reelected by 25 percentage points. 

Two Democrats are campaigning in a bid to run against the Republican primary victor: Kimberly Bizon of Lexington, who ran in 2018, and Kelly Noland of Chesterfield.

If elected, Hernandez would be Michigan's first Hispanic American U.S. House member, according to the U.S. House

Battle of backgrounds

In interviews, Hernandez and McClain — who have the most financial support in the race — didn't go into policy differences when asked to compare themselves with their opponent. Instead, they focused on their backgrounds.

Hernandez, who previously worked as the vice president for an architecture firm, said it's a GOP primary, and "everybody is going to have conservative talking points."

"There is only one candidate in the race that can prove those conservative talking points," Hernandez said. "I have a voting record to prove that."

He added: "It is not the time for this district to take a chance on an unknown. It's time for this district to look at the candidates and see one who has been there fighting alongside of them for quite some time."

But McClain, senior vice president at Hantz Group, has emphasized her business experience and said she's "not a politician."

“I am not beholden to anyone. And I say that wholeheartedly," McClain said.

Brig. Gen. Doug Slocum, commander of Selfridge ANG, stands by an F-16 belonging to the Air Force Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team, Jan. 23, 2017.

Slocum, who was a career fighter pilot, has described himself as a "fresh outsider." He also has never run for office before and said in a Monday interview that he is proud of the race he’s run so far.

"I still think I have a fantastically strong message," Slocum said. “The thing I’m most proud of with my campaign is we have not spent a single cent on negative ads. The district has been flooded with negative ads from other campaigns.”

Who is Lisa McClain?

While Mitchell is backing Hernandez and former Gov. Rick Snyder is supporting Slocum, McClain has been endorsed by state Sen. Pete Lucido, R-Shelby Township.

"I know that when she has to vote, she’s going to be looking first and foremost at how it’s going to affect small business," Lucido said.

McClain spent 11 years working within American Express before she and a group of other employees split off to start Hantz Financial, a financial advising firm based in  Southfield, she said. The business grew from zero clients to more than 700 employees.

McClain and other Hantz employees have bankrolled her U.S. House campaign against two candidates with stronger political connections.

"They believe in me," said McClain of her co-workers' support, adding, "When I have a passion for something, nothing is going to stop me."

Her campaign has raised more than $1.7 million since it launched in 2019. Of the total, $1.4 million has come from McClain herself and about $124,000 has come from donors that listed Hantz Financial, Hantz Financial Group or Hantz Group as their employer, according to campaign finance disclosures.

In addition, a super political action committee called the U.S. Future Fund — which can raise unlimited amounts of money from individual donors but is supposed to be independent of candidates — has received $250,000 from Lauren Hantz, president of the Hantz Foundation, and $250,000 from Michael Reid, a consultant with the Hantz Group.

An ad from U.S. Future Fund criticizes state Rep. Shane Hernandez, who's running for the U.S. House this year.

The super PAC has spent about $430,000 on the race, frequently attacking Hernandez, according to disclosures. In one ad, U.S. Future Fund criticized Hernandez's support of a 2018 bill that passed the GOP-controlled Legislature and would have barred state officials from forcing nonprofit organizations involved in politics to disclose their donors.

The ad asked why Hernandez voted to allow "unreported dark money into our elections."

But U.S. Future Fund's treasurer is Ellen Kletzka, who works for Lambert, a firm that also does political consulting for Michigan Senate Republicans, according to federal disclosures. The bill in question passed the Senate with Republican support, and its sponsor was current Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake.

McClain's political contributions have drawn their own critiques during the campaign.

The businesswoman gave $4,000 to former state Sen. Bert Johnson, D-Highland Park, over 2014 and 2015, according to disclosures. In 2018, Johnson was sentenced to 90 days in jail for stealing more than $23,000 from state taxpayers by adding a ghost employee to his Senate payroll.

McClain, who describes herself as a lifelong Republican, said she gave the money to Johnson as the Hantz Foundation was working on a charitable project in Detroit in Johnson's district. 

"He came in and did a spiel and (said), 'Hey, would you like to donate to my cause?'" McClain said. "Of course, we did."

Then, there are McClain's personal financial disclosures, which show she received $1 million in income from Hantz Associates over the first five months of this year — while she was campaigning for office — after receiving $410,000 the entire year before.

The income was attributable to "a performance bonus" that she received during the 2020 reporting period relating to services performed in 2019 prior to her candidacy, said Scott Greenlee, a McClain campaign spokesman.  

The bonus was calculated at the end of the year along with all other Hantz bonus activity so the payment arrived this calendar year, Greenlee added.

Club for Growth attacks

Hernandez has benefited from $1.5 million in independent spending by the conservative group Club for Growth Action, much of it on TV ads.

Club for Growth describes itself as "a national network of over 250,000 pro-growth, limited government Americans who share in the belief that prosperity and opportunity come from economic freedom."

The group's ads have mentioned McClain's financial support of Johnson while noting she "didn't give a dime to help President Trump against Hillary."

McClain slammed the Club for Growth's spending in the race, saying the group wouldn't "own" her when she gets to Washington, D.C.

“Ideologically we’re the same," she said of herself and Hernandez. "If Club for Growth puts a $1.5 million in it, you’re still not controlling to me."

But Hernandez's supporters view the Club for Growth spending as a lifeline in the race, where he could have been swamped by McClain's personal wealth.

Four years ago, Mitchell used about $3.5 million of his own money to help him win the 10th District seat against two GOP state lawmakers after spending another $3.6 million in a losing race in mid-Michigan’s 4th Congressional District in 2014 against John Moolenaar of Midland. But four years ago, no big-spending group came into help Mitchell's opponents.

Mitchell, a businessman, got 38% of the vote in the GOP primary in 2016. Then-state Sen. Phil Pavlov came in second with 28%.

An ad from Club for Growth Action criticizes U.S. House candidate Lisa McClain, who's running in Michigan's 10th District.

Mitchell rejected the comparison with McClain, noting he had been involved in Republican politics for years, including his 2014 congressional run in another district and serving as the state party's finance chairman.