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Big money donors shunning Tudor Dixon, Michigan Republican ticket

Tudor Dixon at a press conference
Tudor Dixon has low name recognition and is lagging in fundraising behind Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Some Republican consultants say she’s running out of time to close the gap. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)
  • Low name ID, lack of enthusiasm is hurting Tudor Dixon
  • Big donors who have given to Republicans for decades aren’t writing checks to Dixon, a Bridge analysis shows.
  • Democrats are also outspending Republicans in many legislative races

LANSING — Speaking to more than 400 listeners during a Sept. 27 call, Michigan Republican gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon asked for a prayer.

“Elevate our message in supernatural ways,” she told the audience on the prayer call hosted by former Michigan GOP grassroots chair Mark Gurley. 

“Because we certainly don’t have the ability to do that the way (Democratic Gov.) Gretchen Whitmer can.”

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That may be because Dixon has been abandoned by big-pocketed GOP donors who have funded Republican gubernatorial candidates over the past two decades, a Bridge Michigan analysis of state campaign finance records has found.

There isn’t a lot of enthusiasm for Dixon or others on the statewide ticket, all of whom are outsiders who trail badly in recent polls, strategists say.

“These folks want to invest in races where they think they can make a difference and not necessarily carry the entire load,” said Jason Roe, a Republican strategist who works for GOP state Sen. Tom Barrett’s congressional campaign in the Lansing area. 

“You don’t want to be the biggest donor in a losing race.”

Of the 24 PACs that each gave $5,000 or more to Bill Schuette for his governor’s bid in 2018, only two — the Michigan Petroleum Association and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce — contributed to Dixon’s campaign or pro-Dixon super PAC Michigan Families United.

None of the former GOP Gov. Rick Snyder’s big donors — those who each gave his campaign more than $5,000 — gave to Dixon’s campaign or any of the pro-Dixon super PACs.

The records reflect donations as of Aug. 22, according to campaign finance reports filed in late September. They show Dixon and others are trailing in fundraising so significantly, they are struggling to buy TV advertisements

Whitmer had more than $14 million on hand in August, 28 times the $523,000 amount for Dixon’s campaign, the reports show.

The problems spread down the ticket: In statewide legislative races, many Democrats are posting big fundraising leads over their Republican opponents fueled by new districts that are more Democratic-friendly and by Proposal 3, the abortion-rights ballot measure. 

In the race for attorney general, incumbent Democrat Dana Nessel has over $2.4 million, 10 times more than her Republican opponent Matt DePerno, and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, has $3.3 million, dwarfing the $184,000 reported by Republican nominee Kristina Karamo.

Some business groups, including the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Small Business Association of Michigan, have not endorsed any gubernatorial candidates in the general election. 

Brian Calley, Snyder’s former lieutenant governor and president of the bipartisan small business group, said in a statement the group will not endorse any gubernatorial candidates but will focus on legislative races instead. 

The Michigan Chamber endorsed Dixon in the August primary, but not the general election. It has made an endorsement in every governor’s race for at least two decades. 

“At this time, there’s just not consensus among our members,” said Chamber spokesperson Sara Wurfel.

Dixon has expressed confidence in her campaign and suggested strong fundraising numbers in the weeks since her last disclosure report was due. 

Last weekend, at a rally with former President Donald Trump in Warren, Dixon said her fundraising efforts are "fantastic" and the campaign will have enough money to "get our message out and overcome."

“Whitmer knows it's close, which is why she's still spending over $2.5 million a week attacking Tudor,” said Dixon spokesperson Sara Broadwater in a Thursday email to Bridge.

Help on the way?

More money is on the way for Dixon. 

Get Michigan Working Again, a PAC affiliated with the Republican Governors Association, has spent more than $3.5 million on ads that will start running Oct. 12, association spokesperson Chris Gustafson told Bridge on Wednesday. 

Michigan Republican Party spokesperson Gus Portela told Bridge the party intends to send Dixon’s campaign $100,000, the same amount it gave Schuette in 2018. The party spent $3.1 million in October 2018 running ads to boost Schuette, records show. 

It has not done so for Dixon’s campaign this year. Nor has it given to DePerno or Karamo, despite raising just over $2.9 million this cycle and spending $2.5 million, reports show.

In 2018, the party had raised over $5.2 million by mid-September. It spent more than $1 million on ads targeting Nessel on behalf of then-GOP nominee for attorney general Tom Leonard and paid more than $564,000 for anti-Whitmer ads. 

The Republican Party’s main focus now is to boost voter turnout “at all levels,” Portela said. 

“Regardless of when the party cuts the check … I’m sure the money will make a huge difference for the campaign,” Portela told Bridge on Tuesday, stressing the party believes that “Tudor can win and will win” in November.

Opportunities may be fading, Roe said, noting that rates for TV ads increase in the weeks leading to the Nov. 8 election. Dixon’s campaign may need at least $2 million a week until the election “to make an impact,” he estimated.

“If significant money doesn’t flow into efforts to help Tudor Dixon, it’s difficult to see how we pull this off,” he said. “She’s had nothing.”

Few Schuette donors came to Dixon’s aid

Dixon’s lack of resources has her lagging behind Whitmer in poll numbers and TV ad buys. 

Some statewide polls have placed Whitmer’s lead over Dixon between 6 percent and 17 points. Meanwhile, pro-Whitmer ads aired 4,646 times between Sept. 5 to Sept. 18, while pro-Dixon ads only aired 19 times during the same time period, Axios reported.

Dixon has received at least $71,500 from the west Michigan DeVos family, which endorsed her early in the primary.

As of Aug. 22, almost no other prominent GOP funders had come to Dixon’s aid, campaign finance records filed in late September show.

Dixon’s campaign netted one donation — $10,000 from Capitol Affairs PAC — above the maximum $7,150 allowed for individual donors, campaign records show. 

Of the 24 PACs that gave at least $5,000 to Schuette as reported in 2018, the Michigan Petroleum Association PAC was the only one to give to Dixon’s campaign. It gave Schuette $10,000. It gave Dixon $1,000.

Between Jan. 1 and Aug. 22, Dixon’s campaign received more than 7,500 donations totaling $1.9 million, with just under $30,000 coming from 12 PACs, a Bridge analysis shows.

During the same time period in 2018, Schuette received more than 5,400 donations totaling $3.2 million, including $558,000 from 122 PACs. 

Passion from GOP donors ‘chilled’

The comparison between Schuette and Dixon’s fundraising is “not an apples to apples comparison,” said John Sellek, a Republican consultant with Harbor Strategic Public Affairs in Lansing who worked for Schuette.

Schuette was nominated by the GOP during an open race, when then-Republican Gov. Rick Snyder could not pursue a third term due to term limits. Dixon faces a Democratic incumbent seeking re-election.

Schuette was also a “political heavyweight” who had more than 40 years of political experience in Michigan before running for governor in 2018, Sellek noted. Dixon never held public office, he said.

Major donors took “a wait-and-see position” this year, Sellek said.

“Since most major donors are from the business world, they will make investments but want an expectation of success,” Sellek said. “With Whitmer's huge financial advantages and strengthened poll numbers at the start of the general (election), many did not see a reason to jump in with their dollars.”

Like Sellek, Republican and Democratic consultants and lobbyists interviewed by Bridge said major GOP donors refrain from giving to Dixon because they are skeptical she can win. 

Polling suggests Dixon is still largely “unknown to the electorate,” Roe said.

Amanda Fisher, state director of National Federation of Independent Business in Michigan, agreed with Roe on Dixon’s lack of name recognition. 

The NFIB PAC endorsed Dixon for the general election but has not contributed to her campaign. Fisher noted the PAC has not traditionally given to gubernatorial candidates, although it did donate $1,000 to Schuette in 2018.

“Because of the crowded primary, whoever the Republican nominee was was going to start off a bit behind,” Fisher said. “I think that people are trying to figure out the best use of their funds.”

Dixon’s inability to attract funds immediately after her primary victory has GOP donors concerned, said Roe, the Republican consultant. 

Dixon’s campaign has relied on the two pro-Dixon super PACs — Michigan Families United and Michigan Strong — to spend $2 million running ads in support.

“She basically had a month to put money in the bank, and put an organization together for the general election,” Roe said. “I don’t think people feel like that happened.”

Dixon may have been hurt because she was backed by both Trump and DeVos, Republican strategists say. They argue big donors are leery of Trump, while small donors tend to be Trump loyalists who believe his former Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, betrayed the president in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 Capitol riots by resigning.

Add in the overturning of Roe v. Wade and Proposal 3 to enshrine abortion rights into the Michigan constitution, and enthusiasm “chilled” for many Republicans, said Roe, the consultant.

State legislative races 

At the state legislative level, more competitive political districts created by redistricting have resulted in heavier spending than usual by Democrats eager to flip at least one chamber in a state Capitol where they’ve long been the minority, leaving Republicans racing to keep up. 

According to post-primary reports filed in 2018, Democratic state Senate candidates had spent more than Republican candidates in 14 of 38 Senate districts, and had more cash on hand at that stage in 17 districts. 

Flash forward to 2022, and the trend is reversed: Of the 38 districts up for grabs, Democratic candidates in 19 of those have outspent their Republican opponents so far, and 24 entered the final stretch of the election cycle with more cash on hand than their rivals.

After the primary election, 14 Senate Democratic candidates had more than $100,000 available to spend, compared to five Republican candidates. Combined, Senate Democratic candidates have spent $983,372 thus far, and Republican candidates have spent $912,476.

Kristen McDonald Rivet, a Democrat and first-time state legislative candidate up against Republican Rep. Annette Glenn in the 35th District covering Midland, Bay City, and Saginaw, told Bridge Michigan Wednesday that her campaign has averaged about $10,000 a week in unsolicited donations alone. 

Glenn, who won the district’s competitive Republican primary, reported having $59,843 left to spend in post-primary reports. Rivet reported having $237,035 on hand.

In other competitive state Senate districts considered crucial to deciding the majority, similar trends emerge from recent campaign finance filings:

  • In three metro Detroit districts, Democrats held sizable cash advantages. Democrats have big cash leads in the 9th, 11th, 12th and 13th senate districts in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.
  • In the 32nd Senate District, a west Michigan lakeshore district stretching from Muskegon to Frankfort, Rep. Terry Sabo, D-Muskegon, had $276,801 on hand, while incumbent Republican Sen. Jon Bumstead, R-North Muskegon, had $99,224.
  • In Senate District 30, which covers part of Grand Rapids and surrounding suburbs, Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, had $155,215 on hand compared to opponent and incumbent Sen. Mark Huizinga, R-Walker, who had $73,694.

Senate Republicans have known this battle was coming, and they’re fighting hard to keep control. Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake,  recently told Bridge he has “100 percent confidence we’re going to retain the majority.”

“But I have an equal level of confidence that we’re having to work harder this time than we have in probably 35 years,” he continued. 

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Candidates in several state House seats made more competitive by the redistricting process are also posting big fundraising numbers, but not yet at the same level as competitive state Senate seats.

Across the House’s 110 districts, House Democratic candidates have spent a combined $1.25 million at this point in the cycle, while House Republican candidates have spent about $1.2 million.

Both Democratic and Republican national groups have said they are committed to investing heavily in Michigan.

Bridge reporter Jonathan Oosting contributed reporting.

Editor's note: This story was updated at 9:55 a.m. Oct. 7 to reflect that the Small Business Association is a bipartisan group.

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