With the 2018 elections on the horizon, candidates across parties and levels of government have begun fundraising for their campaigns. Campaign finance reports released last Wednesday by Michigan’s Secretary of State’s office show large sums of money flowing into gubernatorial, congressional, attorney general and secretary of state races in Michigan, indicating competitive and expensive upcoming elections.
According to the reports, fundraising for this year’s gubernatorial race is going at more than double the pace of 2010, when incumbent governor Rick Snyder, R, was elected. So far, the 12 candidates for governor have collectively raised nearly $17 million. The four Republican candidates have collectively raised about $5.8 million and the Democrats candidates have raised $11 million. Of the $11 million, $6 million can be attributed to candidate Shri Thanedar, whose campaign funds have come primarily out of his own pocket.
“I feel that I am really competitive and my substantial spending on TV going forward is only going to increase my name recognition,” he told the Free Press.
However, Democratic gubernatorial frontrunner Gretchen Whitmer has raised the most of all recent non-incumbent Democrat gubernatorial candidates. Whitmer campaign spokesperson Annie Ellison said she is proud the Whitmer campaign has pulled more funding from private donors rather than large companies.
“(We are) proud of the unprecedented local grassroots coalition behind this campaign,” Ellison said to US News.
Richard Hall, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy and the Department of Political Science, says races for open seats are generally the most contested and expensive because there is no favored incumbent, meaning more candidates fighting for the nomination of the incumbent’s party.
“I think any time you’ve got what’s expected to be a close race, there are incentives for donors on both sides to pump money into it,” Hall said.
Donors can be individuals or political action committees. Since 2010, individual contribution limits have doubled, meaning any individual can now donate $6,800 to a candidate’s primary bid, compared to $3,400 limit then. PACs can donate up to $68,000, and Hall says these organizations are a lot easier to collect large sums of money from than individuals.
“PAC money is easy to collect,” Hall said. “I can go into a room with half a dozen oil executives and get six checks for $10,000 each and walk out with $60,000. The amount of money and time it takes to raise $60,000 from individual contributors is a lot larger.”
Aside from direct campaign contributions, spending by super PACs and other expenditure organizations is also expected to affect the gubernatorial election. Bill Schuette, Republican gubernatorial candidate and current Michigan Attorney General, has the support of a super PAC that raised $500,000 just last quarter.
The campaign finance report showed a similar trend in high fundraising numbers in the Michigan Secretary of State election as well.
Democrat Jocelyn Benson, former dean of Wayne State University Law School, is leading the race with $455,143 raised so far. Benson, as well as her Republican opponent Mary Treder Lang, have high-profile contributors. Benson has received donations from Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and renowned feminist activist Gloria Steinem. Lang has received donations from six members of the DeVos family, known for their advocacy of charter schools in Michigan.
In the congressional elections, Democratic challengers out-fundraised their Republican incumbents for the final quarter of 2017 in four different districts. Hall attributes the mobilization of the Democratic Party to President Trump.
“This is going to be the first midterm election under Trump, and Trump has been such a polarizing figure,” Hall said. “There’s no doubt that Trump is really mobilizing the Democratic base.”
LSA sophomore Samuel Morse agrees the boost in campaign fundraising indicates more political engagement among the electorate.
“The dissatisfaction across the political spectrum has led to a political awakening across our country,” Morse said. “Some saw that dissatisfaction answered by the election of Donald Trump, for most, this dissatisfaction is because of the election of Donald Trump. The increase in campaign funding in our governor’s race is a clear reflection of that awakening.”
Morse works on Dr. Abdul El-Sayed’s campaign for governor, which has informed his perspective on fundraising and campaign finance.
“Working on the campaign has taught me the importance of small dollar donations,” Morse said. “We do what we can to get the larger donations from people who can afford it, of course, but what really creates a grassroots movement is small-dollar contributions from thousands of energized voters.”
Morse also worries the cost of campaigns prevents qualified candidates who don’t have established fundraising networks from running.
“The worst part is, the expense of running campaigns keeps genuinely passionate and qualified candidates from running, candidates who are more well connected with their communities than with special interest groups, corporations and millionaires,” Morse said.
Hall is concerned not with money determining the outcome of elections, but with what the donations buy after the elections.
“I do worry about what the postelection effects are,” Hall said. “(The PACs) are not really trying to influence the election so much as trying to get something after the election, and I think the evidence is pretty good that donors are able to get access to members postelection.”
By access, Hall means politicians may listen to the input of the donating PAC, represent the PAC’s interests and push for the PAC’s desired policies in tacit exchange for continued donations. This process amplifies the voices of special interests over the broader electorate.
“If you want to be heard, then you need to get access, and money helps you do that,” Hall said.
Morse agrees the motive behind the donations for desired access is troublesome.
“Fundamentally, these people, corporations and organizations are looking for returns on their investments,” Morse said. “They’re businessmen and women anyway.”
Hall has also observed through his research that money may allow donors to influence policy. This often takes the form of lobbyists’ ability to effect change on smaller provisions of large bills.
“I think there’s also evidence that money helps you influence policy, though the evidence on that is indirect, but some research I’ve been doing shows that groups that have large lobbying budgets and make campaign donations are better able to get access and they’re better able to translate that access into influence on the subordinate provisions of larger policies,” Hall said.
As a remedy to these concerns but support some form of campaign finance reform in the state of Michigan.
“Meaningful reform, with the support of Democrats and Republicans, would ensure, to some end, that our politicians are beholden to the people who voted them into office, not the private groups that paid for their way into office,” Morse said.