Whitmer campaign sends $3.5M in excess donations to Democratic Party

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's campaign has sent $3.5 million in funds it raised above normal contribution limits to the Michigan Democratic Party, according to a disclosure filed Monday.

The new report from the Democratic governor revealed she raised $2.5 million over the final campaign finance period of 2021, from Oct. 21 through the end of the year, and a financial windfall for state Democrats.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer attends a press conference at the Ruth Ellis Center, in Highland Park, June 14, 2021. Whitmer signed an executive directive prohibiting the use of state funds for the practice of conversion therapy on minors.

Her campaign previously used a policy from the 1980s to collect nearly $4 million in contributions above the state's normal giving limits, according to an October Detroit News analysis. Individual donors are usually capped at $7,150 for a statewide candidate.

While Republicans have contended the strategy was unconstitutional, her team has said she could do it because of attempts to recall her and longstanding rulings from the Secretary of State's office that say candidates facing active recalls can raise unlimited amounts of money to match the ability of the recall committees.

The Secretary of State's office previously said if no new recalls were filed against Whitmer by Jan. 1, any possible recall effort would necessarily be considered concluded and she would have to distribute the excess funds she raised. That's because under state law, no recalls can be filed against a governor in their last year of a term in office.

Whitmer's campaign could have given the excess money to a political party committee, donate it to a charitable organization or refund the contributors.

Her filing Monday showed $3.5 million went to the Michigan Democratic Party and $250,000 was refunded back to attorney Mark Bernstein. Bernstein was one of five donors who gave at least $250,000 individually to her campaign. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Ronda Stryker of the Stryker Foundation, businesswoman and philanthropist Patricia Stryker and Samson Energy executive Stacy Schusterman each gave $250,000.

Republicans blasted the governor's decision to send the money to the state party.

Tori Sachs, executive director of the Michigan Freedom Fund, said Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson had let Whitmer get away with "the largest illicit campaign cash grab in Michigan history."

Now, Nessel and Benson, two Democrats who are up for reelection this fall, could benefit from the funds, Sachs noted.

"This corrupt laundering scheme proves that while Benson and Nessel are on duty, the law doesn’t matter and there are no consequences for Gretchen Whitmer and her allies," Sachs said.

Benson's office ruled in December that Whitmer did not violate campaign finance laws when she accepted contributions above the state's fundraising limit because she was facing recall efforts.

"While the department would like to revisit the decades-old policy regarding fundraising into a campaign committee during a recall effort, and would welcome a request for a revised declaratory ruling, in the matter before the department, which is bound by precedent and law, there was no evidence of a violation," the Bureau of Elections said in December.

The Michigan Republican Party has challenged Whitmer's fundraising strategy in court, but on Jan. 4, a federal judge dismissed the suit.

Judge Janet Neff of Michigan's Western District ruled that the Republican Party's lawsuit over the so-called "recall exception" had failed to allege a "concrete and particularized injury" that would invoke the court's ability to decide the case.

To start 2022, Whitmer's campaign had $9.9 million available to spend, putting it well ahead of her potential Republican opponents.

"Gov. Whitmer is fighting to keep kids in classrooms, invest in education, cut taxes, and rebuild Michigan’s infrastructure while putting money back in the pockets of Michiganders," said Preston Elliott, Whitmer's campaign manager. "We are grateful for the support from Michiganders in every single county, who are making sure the Governor can continue to deliver historic progress on the kitchen table issues."

The November election is 281 days away.

cmauger@detroitnews.com