Michigan GOP sues over Whitmer's campaign fundraising strategy

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

The Michigan Republican Party on Tuesday filed a lawsuit in federal court, challenging $3.4 million in campaign contributions that Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer raised this year in response to recall efforts against her.

The litigation could force a judge to weigh in on the much-debated legality of a large chunk of the governor's campaign war chest and longstanding rulings that allow officeholders in Michigan who are the subject of recalls to accept unlimited amounts of money from donors.

Because other Michigan candidates fall under strict campaign contributions limits, the Michigan GOP labeled the policy in question the "recall exception" in its lawsuit in U.S. district court for the Western District. The party named Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson as the defendant because she's in charge of enforcing Michigan's campaign finance laws.

"This disingenuous maneuvering is simply an effort to position her reelection campaign within the narrow and rarely-applied contours of the recall exception, through which Governor Whitmer’s campaign is circumventing the contribution limits that apply to all the other candidates in the gubernatorial race," the Republican Party's lawsuit said.

The fight over Whitmer's fundraising strategy began in July when her reelection campaign filed its first disclosure covering 2021.

The document revealed a record fundraising amount for the first seven months of the year, $8.6 million, including about $3.4 million in contributions from donors whose giving surpassed the $7,150 individual donor cap that normally covers individuals running for governor.

Five donors gave at least $250,000 each. Supporters of the governor said she could accept the large contributions because she was facing recall campaigns. However, none of those efforts have gained traction.

The GOP lawsuit is "totally baseless, ludicrous and frivolous," Whitmer reelection campaign spokesman Mark Fisk said in a Tuesday statement." He also criticized Ron Weiser, the Republican state party's chairman and a plaintiff in the suit who had been entangled in a campaign finance inquiry involving claims that he used party funds to lure a secretary of state candidate out of a race in 2018.

"These are the same political operatives who used sleazy payoffs to push candidates out of running for office and funneled millions into dark money slush funds to promote voter suppression efforts and attacks on public health experts," Fisk said. "You should never throw stones in glass houses, but Ron Weiser just hurled a huge boulder through his, shattering his credibility and proving the Michigan Republican Party’s hypocrisy knows no bounds."

Decisions in the 1980s from then-Secretary of State Richard Austin allowed an officeholder fighting a recall to raise unlimited amounts from donors to match the fundraising ability of recall committees.

Tracy Wimmer, spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of State under Benson, declined to comment in detail on the new lawsuit but she referenced the past decisions by the department.

Wimmer also said the money raised to fight a recall "must be returned or donated if the recall does not become active."

While about 30 sets of petition language aimed at recalling Whitmer have gone before the Board of State Canvassers since the beginning of 2020, none of them have come anywhere close to the more than 1 million valid signatures it would take to put the matter before voters.

In its lawsuit on Tuesday, the Michigan Republican Party contended that the current recall policy violates the equal protection rights of GOP candidates running for governor because if they raise excess contributions they could face criminal prosecution.

Likewise, the party said the policy violates freedom of speech rights because it amounts to "viewpoint discrimination" because Democratic incumbents can raise large checks while Republican challengers can't.

"Gretchen Whitmer continues to raise millions of dollars from donations that are well over the state's contribution limits," said Gustavo Portela, communications director for the Michigan Republican Party. "While it's no secret that she thinks she's above the law and rules don't apply to her, our lawsuit will ensure that her crony, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, applies campaign finance rules fairly to all candidates running for Governor."

The Republican Party's attorneys for the case include longtime campaign finance lawyer Charles Spies and John Inhulsen, the GOP's general counsel.