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Bridge Michigan
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Michigan Republicans seek to close loophole that helped Whitmer raise millions

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a first-term Democrat, has raised millions of dollars more than her Republican counterparts. (Bridge file photo)

LANSING — Michigan Republicans are exploring legislation that would restrict officials from raising excess campaign funds because of recall threats, closing a loophole that helped Gov. Gretchen Whitmer break fundraising records.

Rep. Greg VanWoerkom, R-Norton Shores, is spearheading a proposal requiring elected officials facing recall to set up a separate campaign committee to raise funds used to address the recall.

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The officials would only be allowed to form the committee when a recall petition has gathered enough signatures to force an election, and they must return any unused funds after the recall election.

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“This bill crafts a solution that balances unique circumstances of facing a recall election with a legitimate framework to ensure funds intended to fend against recall aren’t abused,” VanWoerkom said.

Currently, Michigan law caps contributions from individual donors at $1,750 for gubernatorial candidates, but officials are exempt from limits if they are facing an active recall campaign.

More than 20 recall petitions have been filed against Whitmer, but none have been successful.

Whitmer raised a total $14.2 million in 2021, including at least $3.8 million exceeding the contribution limits, according to a Bridge Michigan analysis

Following an opinion from state Attorney General Dana Nessel that the governor should not be able to keep the excess funds, Whitmer gave much of the money — $3.5 million — to the Michigan Democratic Party, which could then use the funds to promote her or attack her opponents.

Whitmer had taken advantage of a nearly 40-year-old ruling from former Secretary of State Richard Austin, who reasoned that contribution limits shouldn’t apply to sitting officials targeted for recalls because those limits don’t apply to recall committees.

Since the 1990s, every governor of Michigan has faced a recall petition at one time or another — but  neither Republicans Rick Snyder and John Engler nor Democrat Jennifer Granholm used the ruling to exceed campaign limits.

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Under VanWoerkom’s bill, funds supporting Whitmer’s re-election effort would have to be separate from money helping her fight against the recall.

In addition, the bill stresses funds received by the recall committee must not be “commingled” with the campaign committee. 

Rep. Matt Koleszar, D-Plymouth, suggested during a Tuesday hearing committees launching the recall efforts should be subject to the same restrictions. 

“The candidate being recalled has to return extra money to donors, but the group initiating the recall does not. Why is that difference there?” Koleszar asked.

VanWoerkom told Bridge Michigan he thinks Koleszar’s concern should be addressed in a separate bill, but he is willing to further finesse the language.

House Elections and Ethics Committee Chair Ann Bollin, R-Brighton, told Bridge Michigan that Koleszar’s point may be something the committee will consider. 

She said she intends to file legislation similar to that of VanWoerkom. Her bill would apply the same individual contribution limits to recall committees as well.

Whitmer’s fundraising is “perfectly legal,” Bollin said.

“But is it ethical? Is it responsible? Is that really what the intention was by the interpretation of the law?” she said. “I think it’s presented itself as an opportunity for us to strengthen our law and define what a recall candidate is.”

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