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Bridge Michigan
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PACs backed by DeVos, others spend $2M on ads to aid Tudor Dixon, records show

Betsy DeVos is the former U.S. secretary of education and her wealthy family is well known as political donors. But her resignation from the administration of President Donald Trump after the 2021 Capitol riots has led to criticism by Republicans running for governor in Michigan. (Shutterstock photo)
  • Two super PACs funded by wealthy conservatives spend more than $2.2 million supporting Tudor Dixon.
  • One critic accuses Dixon of ‘outsourcing’ her campaign to super PACs that share the same law firm, consultant.
  • Perry Johnson spent at least $5.9 million on ads for his failed campaign.

LANSING — Two super PACs funded by prominent west Michigan power brokers, including the family of former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, have raised almost $2.6 million to boost GOP gubernatorial hopeful Tudor Dixon, campaign finance reports filed on Monday show.

The campaign fundraising tallies come as rivals in the five-candidate race step up their attacks on Dixon’s ties to DeVos, including a debate last week and an ad by millionaire businessman Kevin Rinke. The primary is Aug. 2 to determine who faces Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in November.

The ad claimed Dixon couldn’t be trusted and questioned her loyalty to former President Donald Trump because she courted support from so-called RINOs — Republicans in Name Only — and the Republican establishment.

“Tudor Dixon has taken millions from the same billionaires who tried to illegally remove Trump from office,” the ad says, a reference to DeVos who resigned after the riots at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Dixon, a Norton Shores former steel executive, claimed the ad is a lie and demanded it be removed from the airwaves. 

Records that had already been released show the DeVos family directly donated $71,500 to Dixon’s campaign. 

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While super PACs by law cannot directly contribute to candidate campaigns, they can run ads in support of them. The two super PACs supporting Dixon — Michigan Families United and Michigan Strong — spent a collective $2.24 million to support her, including $1.94 million on media consulting, video production and ad buying, records show. 

Of that money, $1.92 million came from Michigan Families United, which has received $1 million in donations from DeVos family members since April, records show. 

The super PAC also got $25,000 from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which endorsed Dixon, $25,000 from Muskegon Energy Co. and $250,000 apiece from Richard Uihlein, a conservative Illinois billionaire and founder of packaging company Uline, and the American Principle Project, an Arlington, Virginia-based conservative think tank. 

A separate PAC, Michigan Strong, raised $101,000 from two donors between April and July, including $100,000 from Bernard Marcus, founder of The Home Depot. It did not receive funding from the DeVos family, according to campaign records.

Michigan Families United has purchased broadcast time to air a 30-second video portraying Dixon as a “Michigan mom on a mission.”

“Our kids don’t need sex and gender talk,” Dixon said in the video ad. “They need to be able to read and write.”

Apart from promoting Dixon, Michigan Strong spent almost $6,600 on “creative design services” to oppose Rinke, a self-funded GOP businessman who has poured $10 million into his gubernatorial campaign. 

Republican strategist Dennis Lennox told Bridge Michigan that Dixon’s campaign is “outsourcing (her) entire campaign to a super PAC” and relying heavily on TV and digital ads.

“This is the first election I can remember in which candidates for a statewide nomination don’t have campaigns that exist off paper or off conservative social media,” he said. “There are candidates for the Legislature or minor local offices that have more of a campaign than some of the gubernatorial candidates.”

A spokesperson for Dixon’s campaign did not immediately return a Bridge inquiry seeking comment.

Dixon, super PACs share firms

Records show the two super PACs and Dixon’s campaign hired the same firms for fundraising consulting services and legal services — a phenomenon that longtime former Republican strategist Bob LaBrant told Bridge is “highly unusual.”

The super PACs and Dixon’s campaign use Dickinson Wright, a Detroit law firm with more than 475 lawyers, for legal consultation, and Holland-based Campaign Resources Group for fundraising consulting, records show.

The Holland firm received $100,500 from the two super PACs between April and July and almost $86,000 from Dixon’s campaign this year, records show. 

The law firm got paid almost $6,000 from the two super PACs over the past three months and almost $31,000 from the Dixon campaign.

Michigan law prohibits super PACs from coordinating with candidates they support. It allows super PACs to share vendors and attorneys with candidates, as long as the vendors do not share the candidate’s campaign strategies, activities or communication with the super PACs. 

There is no evidence the three entities are coordinating activities, but the appearance of shared vendors means the firms must create a “firewall” between staff members working on different campaigns to prevent coordination, LaBrant said.

“How have you kept some sort of firewall between the attorneys that are working for the gubernatorial candidate and the attorneys that are working for super PACs?” asked LaBrant, a retired Michigan Chamber of Commerce executive who spent decades in Republican politics.

Shared vendors between super PACs and candidates is considered coordination in at least one other state. In Connecticut, super PACs that hire former or current consultants or communications staff of a candidate's campaign are presumed to be coordinating with them.

Johnson spent $5.9M on ads

The records also show Michigan businessman Perry Johnson, who has been disqualified from the November ballot due to an insufficient number of valid signatures, reported raising $7.9 million between April and July, with the bulk of it — 99 percent — coming from himself.

The campaign spent at least $5.9 million in digital, TV and radio ad production and placement, including one payment for “video production” that was as recent as July 8 — well after Johnson was disqualified, campaign records show. 

Johnson, along with four other GOP candidates, was kept off the ballot after a massive signature forgery scandal rocked the Republican gubernatorial field. Among them was former Detroit police chief James Craig, who raised $1.3 million this year, most of which came before the state disqualified him from the race in May. Craig is now running as a write-in candidate.

They were removed when a state Bureau of Elections report found 36 circulators submitted forged signatures for multiple campaigns, including those of Johnson and Craig. Bridge reported that at least 30 of them were tied to First Choice Contracting LLC, a firm run by Shawn Wilmoth, whose Warren home was raided by the state Attorney General’s office last month.

Wilmoth’s firm does not show up on Johnson’s campaign finance disclosure. The report does not show how much Johnson’s campaign paid for signature collection, but it reflects the campaign paid more than $881,000 for “campaign management” services and “petition analysis.”

Of that, $112,500 went to professional signature gathering firm Advance Micro Targeting, records show, while more than $50,000 went to Petition Reeds LLC, a Sunrise, Florida-based firm run by Willie Reeds. 

Reeds was hired by one of Craig’s subcontractors as a “manager” and supervised all circulators flagged by the state to have submitted forged signatures, Craig alleged in the lawsuit. The complaint says Reeds was a “business partner” to Wilmoth.

Johnson also paid more than $4,000 to Brandon Hall, former Trump staffer who was convicted of election fraud by forging signatures on petition forms in 2012.

In other expenditures, Johnson’s campaign spent $3,850 on March 10 on “airfare for campaign staff” — two days after he appeared at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida to attend a fundraiser for Matt DePerno, Trump-endorsed GOP nominee for attorney general.

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