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Whitmer blows past donor limits, raises more than 9 GOP candidates combined

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is using a unique loophole to blow past donor limits and amass a massive campaign war chest. (Courtesy photo)

LANSING — Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer continues to utilize a unique loophole in Michigan campaign finance law to blow by traditional contribution limits and amass a massive war chest ahead of the 2022 election.

New campaign finance disclosures filed with the state on Monday show Whitmer’s campaign raised $3.1 million between July 21 and Oct. 20. That was more than the top nine Republican candidates combined, who collectively reported raising $2.3 million. 

Whitmer ended the reporting period with more than $12.6 million in cash reserves, dwarfing her nearest Republican foe. Former Detroit Police Chief James Craig of Detroit reported less than $1 million in cash on hand after spending roughly a third of the $1.4 million he had raised.

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But Whitmer's fundraising haul was boosted by an unusual maneuver, and she may ultimately be required to return or donate nearly $4 million early next year.

Because of recall petitions filed against her, the first-term Democrat has used a longstanding but rarely utilized exemption to accept excessive contributions from deep-pocketed donors. 

Under state law, individuals are allowed to donate a maximum of $7,150 to gubernatorial candidates in the 2022 election cycle. But since at least 1983, Michigan has lifted contribution limits for officials who are facing an active recall campaign. 

In her latest filing, Whitmer reported contributions of more than  $7,150 from at least 39 individuals, along with several other donors who had given before but not exceeded traditional limits until now. 

Top Whitmer donors included former Kalamazoo College Provost Timothy Light and businessman William Parfet, who each contributed $50,000. George Soros, a billionaire investor and Democratic mega donor, gave Whitmer $25,000. 

Republicans have sued over the contributions. And in court documents, Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel have indicated they believe Whitmer will be required to return or donate the funds early next year when the recall period closes. 

Democrats are “not necessarily in lockstep in regards to their view of what the governor is doing,” said Simon Schuster, a campaign finance watchdog and executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. 

“I'm going to be interested to see where these dollars end up,” Schuster told Bridge Michigan. “It would be truly shocking if they would try to keep them in the campaign.”

In court filings, Nessel’s office has suggested Whitmer’s campaign may be allowed to donate the excess contributions to the Michigan Democratic Party or a politically aligned nonprofit. 

The Michigan Republican Party continues to fight the contributions in federal court. In a Monday filing, GOP attorneys argued the excessive donations have “already been exploited by the governor to demonstrate her fundraising strength.”

All governors in the past 20-plus years have also faced recalls, but none have used the threats to exceed donation limits. 

Whitmer’s campaign defended its fundraising practices.

“As the Attorney General confirmed in the recent filing on behalf of the Secretary of State, the campaign’s fundraising has been in accordance with the law and the recall election period is ongoing,” spokesperson Maeve Coyle said Monday.  

“The campaign will continue to fight back against the Republican attacks on Gov. Whitmer, including the nearly 30 recall efforts they’ve launched against her.”

Among Republican candidates aiming to compete in the 2022 primary, Craig led the field with $1.4 raised, including contributions from GOP former Govs. John Engler and Rick Snyder, along with former Michigan GOP Chair Bobby Schostak and business leaders including Cindy Pasky, Mark Murray and Ron Boji.

“Whitmer and the Democrats will be well financed by the permanent Washington political class and coastal elites, but our message of personal liberty and leading from the front is resonating with Michiganders,” Craig said in a statement.

Kalamazoo-area chiropractor Garrett Soldano raised $495,979 and was followed by conservative media personality Tudor Dixon of Muskegon County, who raised $215,115.57.

Dixon sought to boost her fundraising numbers by also touting $200,000 raised by a super PAC that she said was "independently" supporting her. 

That's "astonishingly brazen," said Schuster, the Michigan Campaign Finance Network watchdog. 

Under state law, "independent is the operative word" when it comes to super PACs that operate as independent expenditure committees, he told Bridge Michigan.

"They cannot coordinate in any way with a campaign or a candidate... and to file a press release touting the number from an independent expenditure committee, it would certainly raise the specter they were,” Schuster said. 

Super PACS are not subject to individual campaign finance limits. And Michigan Strong, the super PAC supporting Dixon, reported a single contribution: $200,000 from Kim Van Kampen, owner of Hampton Green Farm in Fruitport. 

“We are building the infrastructure necessary to win the primary and defeat Gretchen Whitmer,” Dixon said in a release touting the contributions to her campaign and the Michigan Strong super PAC. “I am thrilled with the progress we have made since the summer."

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