Michigan GOP asks court to 'freeze' Gov. Whitmer's recall funds

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan Republican Party is asking a federal judge to issue a temporary restraining order blocking Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer from transferring millions of dollars in campaign funds she raised above the state's contribution limits.

The "emergency" filing came Thursday, three days after Whitmer's campaign attorney, Chris Trebilcock, revealed plans to distribute the funds because a Michigan Supreme Court order had officially ended many of the unlikely recall efforts against the governor. The pending recalls were what Whitmer's campaign said had allowed it to raise money above the normal restrictions.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, (r), and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II, speaks prior to the start of the Motor City Pride Parade in downtown Detroit.** Motor City Pride Parade and festival in downtown Detroit and Hart Plaza. September 19, 2021,Detroit, Mi. (Clarence Tabb, Jr./The Detroit News)

The Michigan GOP has argued the strategy was unconstitutional and unfair to the Republican candidates for governor who face strict caps on contributions from donors.

In its new motion, the party contended that if Whitmer transferred the money she raised through the so-called recall exception, potentially up to $4 million, to the Michigan Democratic Party or another nonprofit, it would still benefit her in her 2022 reelection race.

"If the court grants the plaintiffs’ emergency motion, nothing is lost while the court assesses the constitutional issues the plaintiffs have raised," the filing said. "If the court denies it, there will be no antidote for the toxin injected into this election cycle."

The motion came in an ongoing case in the U.S. District Court for Michigan's Western District. The judge is Janet Neff.

Decisions in the 1980s from then-Michigan Secretary of State Richard Austin allowed an officeholder facing an active recall to raise unlimited amounts from donors to match the fundraising ability of recall committees. Current Secretary of State's Jocelyn Benson's office has said the money raised to fight a recall "must be returned or donated if the recall does not become active."

Whitmer has raised about $4 million from donors who gave amounts above the current $7,150 cap. A handful of donors have given at least $250,000 each.

On Monday, Trebilcock told the Board of State Canvassers that Whitmer's campaign considered the Friday dismissal of its appeal of seven different recall petitions to mark the conclusion of all active recall efforts against the governor.

The campaign is preparing to disburse millions of dollars in contributions that were gathered above the limits, Trebilcock said, but he didn't detail how much exactly would be distributed.

The money could be returned to donors, given to a political party or given to a nonprofit organization, under state policy.

The latest Republican court filing is "nothing more than the latest stunt in a frivolous lawsuit," said Maeve Coyle, Whitmer's campaign spokeswoman.

"The Michigan GOP continues to try and force their extreme agenda that pushes conspiracy theories and does nothing to move Michigan forward by launching another baseless attack on Governor Whitmer," Coyle said.

The Michigan Republican Party has argued that Whitmer should not have been able to collect the excess contributions, and that it would be improper to allow her to give the money to the Democratic Party or another political group that could spend it to benefit her reelection.

"Simply put, the return of such funds to the donors who contributed them is the only constitutionally acceptable remedy," the party's Thursday filing said.

"For that reason, Governor Whitmer’s 'Recall Exception' score must not be shuttled to any other person or entity other than the original donors until the plaintiffs’ constitutional challenge is fully and fairly adjudicated in this court."

The party said the need to prevent the transfer of funds was "immediate." Once transferred, the funds would be forever intermingled with the Democratic Party’s regular coffers or used by "dark money groups to generate headlines and goodwill for the governor," the court filing argued.

"It is no secret that the candidate who spends the most money often wins an election," the filing added.

On Thursday, Gustavo Portela, communications director for the Michigan GOP, said the party "will continue to fight to ensure the law is properly followed because no one, including Gretchen Whitmer, is above the law."

Whitmer's campaign has labeled the Republican Party's original court challenge to the recall fundraising "totally baseless."

As of Oct. 20, about a year before the November 2022 election, Whitmer's campaign reported a war chest of $12.6 million.


Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.