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GOP strategists: Efforts to recall Michigan Gov. Whitmer have backfired

Whitmer
Previous Michigan governors were generally kept in the loop about Freedom of Information Act requests that involved their office. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration has a policy requesting it. (Bridge file photo)

July 29: Michigan Gov. Whitmer use of loopholes to raise millions attracts scrutiny

LANSING — The efforts to oust Gov. Gretchen Whitmer have allowed the first-term Democrat to shatter fundraising records because of a decades-long rule exempting contribution limits for officials facing recalls.

Now, multiple Republican strategists are asking those behind the recall efforts to stop.

Fred Wszolek, a Republican strategist who also serves as a campaign adviser for GOP gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon, called the continued efforts to recall Whitmer “madness.”

“All of these grassroots conservatives who want to get rid of Whitmer need to get with the program that they're currently making it harder, not easier,” Wszolek said.

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On Monday, Whitmer’s re-election campaign reported having fundraised $8.6 million from Jan. 1 to July 20. Whitmer’s campaign now has $10.7 million in hand. 

No other gubernatorial candidate has raised this amount in an off-year, nor during an election year — and Whitmer’s tally is three times the amount her predecessor, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, raised in 2014 for re-election. 

There’s a reason behind this: candidates facing recall efforts in Michigan do not have to follow the state’s individual campaign finance contribution cap of $7,150, according to a 1984 ruling by then-Secretary of State Richard Austin, a longtime Democrat. 

According to Monday’s campaign disclosures, Whitmer’s top contributors include Mark Bernstein, a personal injury lawyer and a member of the University of Michigan Board of Regents ($257,150), and Illinois Gov. J. B. Pritzker ($250,000).

Mark Fisk, spokesperson for Whitmer’s campaign, told Bridge Michigan the governor is exempted from campaign finance limits because she’s facing a threat of recall. 

“We are taking all recall attempts seriously,” Fisk said. “And we are going to be beating these efforts back at the Board of Canvassers, in the courts and on the streets as long as necessary.”

Fisk said that if the money is not used, they can be transferred to another account. Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Whitmer made no apologies.

"We need reform when it comes to political contributions but as long as the rules are what they are, I'm going to make sure that I always abide by the rules,” Whitmer said. “I'm going to run hard, just like I do everything when I set my mind to something."

None of the dozens of recall attempts against Whitmer have been approved, however. On Monday alone, the Michigan Board of Canvassers discussed 10 petitions to recall Whitmer, but none have made it far because of factual errors in petitions, unclear language or lack of signatures.

The loophole deployed by Whiter was created by Austin because he claimed it would be “absurd and unfair” to limit contributions to officeholders who would have to simultaneously raise money for re-election and to defend the recall.

Some Republicans question whether Whitmer is legitimately using the law, and political consultant John Sellek predicted it will likely result in litigation.

For now, though, it’s clear that Whitmer’s team figured out the “rules of the game … and they clearly are running with it,” said Sellek, a consultant with Harbor Strategic who worked on GOP nominee Bill Schuette's 2018 gubernatorial campaign.

“Was that tripped off by a few random activists in the (Republican Party)? Yeah, it sure was. Is that backfiring on the party as a whole? Yes, it definitely is,” Sellek said. 

“The governor's team was right to go after it from a political perspective.”

David Blair, a member of the group Recall Whitmer targeting Whitmer because of her pandemic emergency orders, told Bridge Michigan he questions the legality of the governor’s fundraising. 

“We haven't officially begun to recall yet, nor have we, nobody has, because nobody's gotten the signatures required for there to be a recall,” Blair said.

Still, his organization will continue with its effort to push Whitmer out. 

“That's the only option we have to get her out of there,” Blair said. “The legislators aren't going to do it.”

But Wzolek, the GOP strategist, disagreed. 

“I mean, if they were going to be successful, then everybody would embrace it,” Wszolek said. “But clearly they're not going to collect a million signatures between now and the end of the year, and these requests are only having the effect of strengthening Whitmer.”

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