Outside groups spending millions to sway U.S. House race centered on Detroit

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Outside groups are pouring an unprecedented amount of money into the congressional race covering the bulk of Detroit, the Grosse Pointes and Downriver communities — at least $4.75 million so far and more coming with 11 days until the primary election.

At the moment, the outside spending in Michigan's 13th District Democratic primary is focused on boosting state Sen. Adam Hollier and attacking state Rep. Shri Thanedar, largely through TV ads aired by Detroit stations but also direct mailers to likely voters.

"Never in Detroit ever have I seen it," said Jonathan Kinloch, who chairs the 13th District Democratic Party. "I’ve been involved since the early 1980s as a teenager. I’ve never seen in Detroit a congressional race having this kind of outside money." 

The top spenders are a pro-Israel super political action committee called United Democracy Project that's affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (over $3.23 million) and VoteVets ($759,600), which supports candidates who are veterans, according to federal disclosures.

Also, the group Protect Our Future PAC reported spending nearly $757,000 for a pro-Hollier TV ad this week. The PAC, which supports candidates who "take a long term view on policy planning," is largely funded by leaders of the crypto exchange FTX, according to Politico. 

Senator Adam Hollier speaks to attendees at Oak Grove AME Church in Detroit, Sunday, July 10, 2022.  (Jose Juarez/Special to Detroit News)

Headed into the final stretch before the Aug. 2 election, the outsized spending by independent groups has made the nine-candidate contest look like a two-man race between Hollier and Thanedar, who committed $5.17 million of his fortune to his campaign and is the only non-Black candidate in the field.

"This outside spending is, I think, a direct result of someone moving into the district and trying to buy it with $5 million," Hollier told The Detroit News. "Community leaders are rallying around me and saying that's unacceptable and leveraging their national relationships."

"I think people recognize that this trend of self-funders can only be combated by real investment by people who want to see good government," he added.

Hollier attributes the outside interest to his "well-connected" supporters who want to see Michigan continue to have a Black lawmaker representing Detroit in Congress, as U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, retires. 

"These are professional people who run and win races all across the country and who do not invest these kinds of sums unless they believe that that they are backing a candidate with the opportunity to win," Hollier said. 

Thanedar said he does not see the outside spending as a reaction to his self-funding but an effort by Republican-funded interests to sway the election toward a corporate-friendly Democrat aligned with AIPAC's hawkish position on Israel. 

He has called on Hollier to denounce UDP for accepting donations from GOP  megadonors, for “interfering” in Democratic primaries with negative ads and for targeting progressive candidates in particular.

“What we detest is dark money interfering in the democratic process,” Thanedar told The News. “They’re coming in with a big amount of money in this race to disrupt, and I think what they're spending is regardless of the opponent's financial situation."

Thanedar added: "They come in and interfere in a primary to get the outcome favorable to them. I still won’t accept any corporate PAC money, even though UDP is going to outspend my campaign.”

After a brief photo portrait session, state Rep. Shri Thanedar decides to get out a sign and wave to possible voters on Livernois Avenue in Detroit, Mich. on July 18, 2022.

Thanedar said voters on the campaign trail are not bringing up Israel as a priority issue, so he's struggled to understand why a pro-Israel group is meddling in the race.

“I think they just really want a loyal congressperson," Thanedar said. "This is an investment on their part to get a congressman that they can control and who will go to bat for them.”

Hollier's opponents often link his 2018 vote to construct a tunnel to contain Line 5 to his support from the pipeline owner Enbridge's PAC. In response, Hollier has noted the tunnel construction project would create a years-long job opportunity for Michigan laborers.

“It’s not surprising that Hollier has slid into the pocket of special interest groups in an unbridled effort to be somebody,” said another candidate, Michael Griffie. “Residents of the 13th will see through this charade.”

Attorney Portia Roberson, another candidate seeking the Democratic nomination in the 13th District, said she's also concerned about what outside groups are expecting from Hollier in terms of a return on investment.

"It bothers me that some of my opponents are willing to take support and money from organizations that are very clear that they stand against those things that are most important for the families of this district," Roberson said, citing Hollier's support from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which has opposed minimum wage hikes.

"I'm not always advocating that outside spending is a bad thing, but I think people and voters need to look at what the agenda is of the group that's spending that money."

Hollier said he has no involvement with the outside groups' ads and stressed that as a candidate he legally can't coordinate with them. He also dismissed Thanedar's request that he denounce UDP's negative advertising, pointing to Thanedar's own negative ads targeting him. 

"The question is not should you be taking the money. The question is, does the money determine what you will do?" Hollier said.

"And I, unlike a majority of folks in this race, have a record of voting for and against people who supported me. I accept the money because that is an indication that they believe that I'm the best candidate to win, and that I will win. And I do not in any way, shape or form think about that when I vote or as I do my job."

Portia Roberson

Hollier said he expects he gained UDP's support because of his work to build relationships in the local Jewish community and his position that Israel is a strategic and important partner to U.S. national security.

He dismissed criticism of AIPAC for endorsing Republicans who voted against certifying the 2020 election results, noting other PACs that have also done so like the Credit Union National Association.

"AIPAC supports Democrats and Republicans, and they support people based on one issue," Hollier said. "I'm grateful that they're supporting me, and I think it's hypocritical to claim that this dark money is the problem. The problem is money in politics, right? On both sides."

United Democracy Project did not respond to a request for comment, but the group might have taken note of a state House resolution that Thanedar co-sponsored last year that refers to Israel as an "apartheid" state. The measure, introduced in May 2021 amid deadly fighting in Gaza, also calls on Congress to end its financial support for the Israeli military.

"I did not agree word to word with that resolution, but it was a time of heightened violence, and I wanted to support efforts for peace, as did President Biden," Thanedar said. 

"But this isn’t about a particular policy. UDP and AIPAC have spent millions putting down progressive candidates and even supporting candidates that did not vote to certify the election. It’s about funding candidates they can buy like Adam."

Kinloch thinks that UDP is trying to prevent the potential election to Congress of another Israel critic in light of the current representative for the 13th, U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit — a Palestinian American who has opposed U.S. weapons sales to Israel. Tlaib is running in the 12th District primary.

"What they're trying to do is exactly what they say they're trying to do: Have a very strong pro-Israel policy person in the United States Congress," said Kinloch, who supports Roberson in the primary.

"I think what they also are realizing is they missed the mark in 2018 when Congressman (John) Conyers had resigned, and they basically didn't show up in that election in a way that absolutely could have made a difference" when Tlaib first ran. 

Kinloch said Hollier shouldn't be blamed for the outside money, since candidates can't coordinate with the groups that are spending it. But he expects the ads will surely sway some voters.

"It can make all of the difference," Kinloch said. "If all they're hearing is Thanedar and Hollier and few Portia Roberson names — those are the folks they are going to ponder as they're voting."

UDP is also spending heavily in the 11th District primary in Oakland County, where incumbent Reps. Andy Levin and Haley Stevens are facing off in a heated contest.

Levin's supporters there are calling on Stevens to renounce AIPAC's involvement. UDP has spent at least $3.4 million so far on pro-Stevens and anti-Levin ads, according to federal disclosures.  

"There's nothing more farther-fetched than a group that's supposedly pro-Israel spending money against a Jewish member who's the author of a two-state solution bill," U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin said Friday during a visit to Royal Oak. 

"Candidates must show the intestinal fortitude to stop this themselves. ... I ask Haley Stevens to do the right thing: Not just for this race but for Democratic elections everywhere." 

Overall outside spending in the 11th has topped $6 million through Friday, counting other outside groups such as Women Vote!, an affiliate of EMILY's List; Greenpeace; Friends of the Earth; and J Street Action Fund, which is a rival group to UDP that's invested over $700,000 in an ad attacking Stevens. 

Stevens' campaign has slammed the J Street ad, which highlights AIPAC's support for those who voted against certifying the 2020 election, as "shameful and truly sickening." She has noted that AIPAC also endorses Democratic House leaders including Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Another pro-Israel group is spending against Tlaib in the 12th District, where she is facing primary challengers in her bid for a third term in the U.S. House.

Urban Empowerment Action PAC has spent $200,000 to run an anti-Tlaib ad and plans to spend $750,000 total to boost one of her opponents, Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey. The 12th District covers Dearborn, Southfield and part of Detroit, as well as Livonia, Inkster, Westland, Garden City and Redford Charter Township.

The PAC has said it's made up of a coalition of Black and Jewish business and civic leaders and that its goal is to help elect Black candidates to office who champion "common-sense solutions that uplift Black people." Two more negative ads targeting Tlaib will start airing this weekend, including one targeting her support for defunding the police.

“We’re hitting the airwaves hard to make sure our message — that Rashida Tlaib’s radical ideas are both out of step with what her constituents want and will make them less safe — is heard loud and clear," PAC spokesman Henry Greenidge said.

"Janice Winfrey is the only candidate in the race with the pragmatic solutions needed to keep the community safe and make crucial reforms to Michigan’s broken criminal justice system."

Tlaib's campaign has called the super PAC's involvement "another sad example of out of state billionaire interference in local races, spending millions to peddle lies and distortions and pushing a pro-corporate agenda." 

mburke@detroitnews.com