Michigan is the dark money capital of American politics

Here’s an observation about the presidential election campaign: It is necessary to have a candidate campaign committee that can raise a lot of money – but probably not sufficient. We’re already hundreds of millions of dollars into the 2016 campaign and much of the money behind most of the candidates is going to independent-spending super PACs. That’s where the six and seven-figure checks go. That’s where the brass-knuckles political attacks originate. Only Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump disavow super PAC support for their candidacy. Jeb Bush’s super PAC Right to Rise had raised more than $100 million by June 30th.

In some cases, one uber-wealthy donor can make a candidate viable. Remember Sheldon Adelson and Newt Gingrich, and Joe Ricketts and Rick Santorum in the 2012 Republican primary? Sometimes, though, a handful of billionaires aren’t enough to make an inept candidate viable. See Rick Perry and Scott Walker.

For most Americans, this doesn’t feel like democracy. It feels like a very few hands are moving all the game pieces of the American political experience.

The presidential campaign is a large-scale replica of Michigan’s big campaigns of 2014: Gary Peters winning our U.S. Senate seat and Rick Snyder winning reelection as governor. In the Senate contest, the candidates raised $22 million and independent committees spent $36 million. In the gubernatorial, the candidates had $22 million and independent committees spent $41 million. More than 80 percent of the independent spending in the gubernatorial wasn’t reported to the State of Michigan. You could learn about some of the committees from the Internal Revenue Service or Federal Election Commission, but most of the money in the gubernatorial campaign just wasn’t reported to the Michigan Bureau of Elections.

Only the naïve believe that money in politics doesn’t yield a great return on investment. Donald Trump loves to regale a crowd with stories about buying public policy, although he hasn’t said whether he believes that pas de deux is bribery or extortion. We need fully transparent reporting of money in politics so we can connect the dots between contributions and policy considerations granted to campaign patrons. Transparency is inoculation against corruption.

In Michigan, much of what is disclosed is reported too late to inform voters. Millions of dollars in independent expenditures were ultimately reported, but not until months after the 2014 election. That is one aberration that doesn’t occur in federal campaign reporting.

The $43 million of spending in Michigan’s 2014 state campaigns that never was reported was nearly double the previous record for our state elections. If you think that would move the legislature to strengthen disclosure requirements, you are wrong.

In fact, in 2013 the legislature amended a perfectly sound disclosure statute that had long been misinterpreted by Terri Lynn Land’s Department of State after it was announced that Ruth Johnson’s administration, acting upon a request from the State Bar of Michigan, was going to correct that misinterpretation. Now our statute requires only messages that include magic words of “express advocacy” to be reported. That amendment to foreclose disclosure of phony “issue ads” passed without a single Democratic vote. Too bad no one administered the Hippocratic Oath to the Republican lawmakers.

The most disappointing part of the dark money act, PA 252 of 2013, was Gov. Snyder signing it. When he ran as a politically virgin candidate in 2010 he cribbed a public ethics platform nearly perfectly verbatim from a paper I had published three years before.

When the bill to suppress disclosure hit his desk he said he had “evolved” on the issue and signed the bill into law. That signing broke my heart. I don’t know whether the governor felt that he really needed the money in the 2014 campaign (the act also doubled contribution limits for candidates), or he got rolled politically, or he really believes that society can’t be free unless political donors and officeholders are free from accountability to voters. None is an honorable rational.

I see Michigan as the Dark Money Capital of American Politics. If someone can show me I’m wrong, I wish they’d do it. Meanwhile, democracy is under assault in Michigan. Our political disclosure policy is borrowed from the Wizard of Oz: “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

That is a culture of corruption.

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Jack Minore
Tue, 10/27/2015 - 1:00pm
The issue of term limits has dramatically increased the cost of Michigan campaigns! Since lobbyists cannot possibly get to know all the many new candidates each cycle, they donate (often quietly) to the parties or to special interest PACS. This means lots of pressure by the Party leadership to "vote the way of the contributor" - instead of the interest of the constituents. Term limits / gerrymandered districts / and silent money have all contributed to the problems cited in this article.
Tue, 10/27/2015 - 1:47pm
Rich your premise is that money is the supreme determinant of who wins any given election? Yet everyone (I assume you too) has seen many elections won by the candidate who was outspent. Show us an example in a general election where money made the difference in electing a weak candidate over a strong candidate. Without this evidence your complaints are meaningless hand ringing. A better mission would be to reduce the number of offices/positions subject to elections, people don't have the slightest notion why and who they're voting for these judges, secretaries, regents, drain commissioners, etc etc. (And never will!).
Tue, 10/27/2015 - 4:25pm
So the best candidate wins regardless of the dark money that's raised? Then why are so many wealthy people raising money for political candidates if the strongest (best?; i.e. George W. Bush) candidate always wins? Maybe the strongest candidate is the strongest candidate because the money spent was spent more effectively (pandered to...) on convincing voters. Maybe the wealthy are just dumber than the voters because we always get what we deserve after watching enough TV ads.
Tue, 10/27/2015 - 10:16pm
Joe, There is nothing that says the best candidate wins in any situation because we have no way od evaluating the quality of a candidate. Mr. Robinson doesn't even allude to some criteria to consider when evaluating a candidate he can only see money [is he jealous or he can trust voters]. I believe Eric Cantor the former Rep. in Virginia disproves the theory on money deciding election, wasn't he spending millions while the winner spent a bit over $200,000 on the election [primary]? What criteria do you use when deciding on a candidate you vote for? Is it Party affliation, is it their experience/background, who they are, what they say they will do [and seldom do], how poor or wealthy their campaign spending, their ethics, their Party loyalty, their principles for deciding on how they will vote, their campaign style, their willingness to make choices that are hard and will disappoint voters in the short run, that they will only vote against companies/employrs, what? Would you be interested in developing a criteria that other voters would use?
Wed, 10/28/2015 - 2:35pm
No Joe I said the strongest candidate which often isn't the best person with the best ideas or abilities. Often the weakest candidate in fact spends more. Case in point our last US Senate race, It wouldn't have mattered how much Terri Land spent. It wasn't money nor ideology. I might concede your point in the case of minor or down ballot races with is why we now have an absolute ambulance chaser on the MI Supreme Court.
Tue, 10/27/2015 - 5:33pm
Synder really doesn't care about voters concerns. He believes he knows best what is good for Michigan. Money and Politics has been decided by the SCOTUS decision and most Republicans /Conservatives realize it benefits their side. The lame arguement that corporates money balances unions money just doesn't make sense when facts are considered. The congress in Lansing will do whatever they want not what voters want. The time is short to set in motion their agenda before elections boot them out. You watch taxes will go up to pay for roads and the push to lower wages thru dismanteling prevailing wages law. And of course corporate tax cuts has hurt wage growth and job creation. If Washington DC has it's way with the right winning elections cuts in entitlements are a given
Stephen C Brown
Tue, 10/27/2015 - 9:42pm
Attention seems to be focused on how "dark money" subverts the election process, but it also perverts debate about public policy. Propaganda is best judged by the "cui bono" approach, but when the speech is divorced from the speaker it's more difficult to get bullshit detectors working. The source of funding for Issue advertisements, especially, should be identified. When people are being truthful and accurate, why should they be afraid of saying who they are?
Wed, 10/28/2015 - 9:07am
Rich, disclose your own donors or please cease your pathetic whining about what else isn't disclosed. Sheesh.
Mon, 11/02/2015 - 11:22am
So everyone knows, MI Campaign Finance Network gets a great deal of money from the Joyce Foundation a liberal organization based in Chicago. This organization has had board members which include Barrack Obama, and his right arm gal Valerie Jarrett. The Joyce Foundation also supports organizations to the far left such as one being run by John Ayers, the brother of Bill Ayers (founder of the communist Weather Underground party who blew up buildings killing people), and the organization has given over $1.1 million in grants (with Mr. Obama's help to the Chicago Climate Exchange known for cronyism. Its too bad that MI CFN only tells one side of the story.
Wed, 10/28/2015 - 2:29pm
SO WHAT does the ELECTROLIC college do/does. And WHO and Where are the people/machine? like in the Bush election when we had to wait 4 weeks ,,till the supreme Court decided? How much of the Election Money not spend get to WHo / the party? the elected ? More money spend in running is good for the economy?
Ned S. Curtis
Thu, 10/29/2015 - 11:09am
The comments here supporting dark money in politics (or passing a blind eye to it), are thoroughly disgusting. This infusion of secret money into our elections is infringing on OUR democracy. It needs to be stopped.
Thu, 10/29/2015 - 12:29pm
So, following Mr. Robinson's logic: Proposal 1 should have been overwhelming approved back in May after all of the money dumped into by by special interests looking for a road spending bonanza as payback? Didn't that one get stomped on like a narc at a biker rally by Michigan Taxpayers by the highest margin in history?
Thu, 10/29/2015 - 3:45pm
Great example!!! nays were outspent $8 or $9 to $1. Ironic that the same people crying about "Dark Money" are the usually the same people whining about tax payers not willing to raise their taxes. Why is ballot privacy and getting lots of people to the voting booth sacrosanct, but sponsoring communications about an ballot issue or candidate reason for suspicion and something to be eliminated?
Fri, 10/30/2015 - 12:46am
It is much easier to be in denial than trust the judgment of voters. It is much easier to blame it on something you can't control than on your position, on a candidate, or on the issue. Blaming the money has become a cottage industry, consider how many articles are written about the 'dark money' and why it should be ban. It is easier to draw an audience by demeaning the voters than by challenge your own position.
David Richards
Tue, 11/03/2015 - 10:10am
If you don't think money, especially anonymous money, heavily influences political races, you are terribly naïve. The first job of a candidate is to raise money. In primaries, interest groups look to see how much money a candidate has raised or has available through outside resources before determining if the candidate is viable enough to be worth supporting. The effect of money is also to influence the issues brought up in the race, with those supported by large sums of money guaranteed a thorough airing and those not supported by large sums may or may not be brought up. The fact that the candidate (or ballot issue) with the most financial support does not necessarily win simply means that there is a limit to how much a bad candidate can be covered up. But if you have two viable candidates, but one has substantially greater funding, the one with the greater funding is going to win the vast majority of the time. Multiply that by multiple campaigns in a single legislative body, and you have a legislature that has been bought. Combine that with instances where the money is anonymous, and you have pretty much subverted democracy.
Sun, 11/01/2015 - 5:39am
One very important thing money can buy and that is AIR TIME. If I can dominate the air waves I can drowned out my competition and not allow for rebuttal or comment. One good example of money not real well spent is Scott Walker in Wisconsin. He was ranked as a top three candidate in late Spring. What a joke. Money can and always will buy power and influence Period. Our democracy if not broken is in need of some repairs. Get out and vote so the majority of the minority does always win. I don't know if our Governor works in the dark but he is good at keeping the voters there until decisions and votes are in. Just keep the Fact Checkers going so we can hear the rest of the story. R.L.
Mon, 11/02/2015 - 10:48am
Many state Representatives and Senators in the UP and norther sections of Michigan depend on dark money in order to win reelection. Its amazing how many downstate businesses and lobbying organizations pay these people in order to get favors in Lansing. Just look at the SOS web pages and you'd be amazing at who is paying how much to whom. As long as corruption exists the common man's voice will never be heard.
Brenda Shufelt
Mon, 11/02/2015 - 12:29pm
You mention the Dark Money in the Gary Peters Senate campaign but you do not mention which candidate used independent committees. I would like to know how that was used by each of the candidates.