LANSING — Republican Bill Hirsch describes the piece of glossy mail with his photograph on it as a “punch in the gut.” The dairy farmer from Caledonia admits even a few days after Tuesday’s primary election, it’s still difficult to talk about it.
Hirsch, a GOP candidate in Western Michigan’s 72nd House District, raised just $1,408 for his campaign. Still, a mystery group, the 21st Century Leadership Fund, decided to attack him, sending out a mailer that stated Hirsch had been delinquent on his taxes for 15 years. The mailers asked voters to contact him. But the phone number listed was wrong. And the number on the mailers had been disconnected.
“They put the wrong number on there intentionally,” Hirsch maintains, explaining that he believes it was meant to signal that he hadn’t even paid his phone bill.
The mailers against Hirsch, who finished in fourth in a five-way race, are one example of vicious attacks levied in the final days before last Tuesday’s primary by two dark money-funded groups. Combined, the two groups attacked at least seven Republican House candidates across five House districts, potentially impacting at least one-fifth of the races for open seats currently held by the House GOP.
They’re all seats that Democrats have little hope of trying to win in November.
Dark money groups also played a role in Democratic primary races for House seats this summer. But those groups were focused on individual races. On the GOP side, the groups seemed to have broader intentions. Their attacks tended to focus on candidates who were the more conservative options in competitive races and who were already at a fundraising disadvantage.
One of the groups, Michigan’s Responsible Taxpayers, attacked at least four candidates across three different GOP primary races. The other, the 21st Century Leadership Fund, attacked at least three candidates across two different races. Both groups appear to be nonprofit organizations.
Because the groups didn’t explicitly tell voters to vote for or against a candidate, their actions don’t fall under Michigan’s loose campaign finance disclosure requirements. So it’s impossible to know how many races the groups played in total or, more importantly, who funded the attacks.
Michigan’s Responsible Taxpayers, which is connected to a former Democratic House staffer turned political consultant, alleged one candidate in a Macomb County race “had no real work experience.”
Across the state, in Western Michigan, the 21st Century Leadership Fund urged voters to call another candidate and “ask if her ethics are Clinton-like.”
In the Northern Michigan 97th District, Michigan’s Responsible Taxpayers ran radio advertisements against Jacob Link, a conservative running in a five-way race. Link said the radio ads attempted to tie him to the Black Lives Matter movement and indicated that he wanted to disarm law enforcement.
“This group is so worried about me winning that they are now airing ads on another set of radio stations,” Link posted on Facebook before the election. “Please ignore the ads and tell everybody that I am fully supportive of our law enforcement officials.”
In that same Facebook post, Link described the nonprofit as “anti-conservative.” Link ended up finishing second to Jason Wentworth, of Clare, who had raised the most money of the candidates in the race.
Michigan’s Responsible Taxpayers also attacked a conservative candidate in the 83rd District, which covers Sanilac County and portions of St. Clair County. There, a mailer that alleged candidate Shane Hernandez, of Port Huron, was friends with “a felon and a pervert” arrived in mailboxes on the day before the primary election, Hernandez said.
Hernandez was locked in a competitive race. His top opponent was Matt Muxlow, of Brown City, the son of the district’s current representative.
The nonprofit group also ran a robocall against Hernandez. Both attacks attempted to tie him to a GOP official with criminal convictions on his record and also to former Rep. Todd Courser, who was forced out of office in 2015 after a sex scandal.
“Our campaign just didn’t react to them,” Hernandez said of the mailers and robocalls. “They were ridiculous and baseless.”
Hernandez ended up winning the three-way race in the 83rd with 46.8 percent of the vote.
Over in the 33rd House District in Macomb County, Michigan’s Responsible Taxpayers attacked two candidates who had campaigned as conservatives. The group sent out negative mailers against Colleen Carl, of Armada, and Mel Koch, of Macomb. The mailers alleged Koch was connected to special interests and personally jabbed Carl, the daughter of a former state senator.
“What does Colleen Carl really care about?” one of the pieces read. “Colleen Carl. That’s what Colleen Carl cares about.”
Carl and Koch finished in second and third place in a six-way contest in the 33rd. Jeff Yaroch, of Richmond, won.
Michigan’s Responsible Taxpayers is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, allegedly based in Lansing.
According to public filings, its authorized officer is Adrian Hemond, a political consultant whose firm Grassroots Midwest works with many incumbent House lawmakers and House candidates, both Republican and Democratic, according to campaign finance filings. Hemond was previously a Democratic staffer working under House Minority Leader Tim Greimel (D-Auburn Hills).
Hemond declined to comment on this report.
This isn’t Michigan’s Responsible Taxpayers’ first attempt to impact elections. The group has intervened in a variety of races across the state previously.
Under Michigan law, despite its attempts to spend money against candidates, its donors can be kept secret, and it’s impossible to know who funded the latest round of attacks aimed at conservative candidates.
While the details of who’s behind Michigan’s Responsible Taxpayers are fuzzy, they’re even fuzzier with 21st Century Leadership, which used similar strategies to attack Hirsch and at least two other House candidates before Tuesday’s primary.
On its mailers, the 21st Century Leadership Fund listed its address as that of a Grand Rapids packing and shipping store. While there is no political action committee on file with the state by that name, a nonprofit with the name 21st Century Leadership Fund was incorporated in Michigan 10 years ago. For many of its annual filings with the state, the nonprofit has also listed Grand Rapids addresses.
For its 2015 annual filing, prominent Republican attorney Eric Doster, who also serves as general counsel for the Michigan Republican Party, was listed as the nonprofit’s authorized officer. In 2014, the 21st Century Leadership Fund’s board president was listed as William Jackson, who works for the multi-client lobbying firm McAlvey, Merchant & Associates. The nonprofit’s address on its 2014 filing was similar to the address Jackson has listed on lobbying disclosures.
MCFN couldn’t reach Jackson for comment. And Doster said Jackson would be unavailable to answer questions for about a week or so. Asked whether Jackson was the only person able to answer questions about the mailers, Doster indicated that Jackson would be the person in the "best position" to do that.
The organization’s 2014 filing says its mission is to “engage in social welfare activities.”
In addition to Hirsch, the 21st Century Leadership Fund sent out mailers against attorney Katherine Henry, of Belding, a self-described conservative candidate running in the Western Michigan 86th District.
The mailers attempted to tie Henry to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama. In one mailer alone, Henry was said to be suspected of bribing a public official, to have been investigated by the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission and to have “controversial bill practices," Henry said.
“Call Katherine Henry and ask if her ethics are Clinton like?” the mailer said.
Henry lost her GOP race by 851 votes to Thomas Albert, of Lowell.
In an interview this week, Henry described the attacks in the mailers as “libel” and mischaracterizations. For instance, she said one of her political opponents filed a complaint with the attorney grievance commission about her. The commission ultimately decided not to investigate it, she said.
The 21st Century Leadership Fund also attacked Republican Steven Johnson, of Wayland, who was in the same five-way race in the 72nd District that Hirsch was in. For Johnson, the fund tried to connect him to former Rep. Cindy Gamrat, who had an affair with Courser before the two were forced from office in 2015.
Johnson reportedly was previously an intern for Gamrat. “Steven Johnson got an education working for Cindy Gamrat,” as the mailer described it.
Johnson ended up winning the primary despite the attack.
Of the attack against him, Hirsch noted that he’s a dairy farmer and milk prices have been problematic. Hirsch said he pays $8,000 in property taxes each year but has been one-year behind on his taxes. That’s where the mailer came up with the attack line that he’s been delinquent for 15 years.
“The way you read it I haven’t paid taxes for 15 years,” Hirsch said.
Craig Mauger is executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts research and public education on money in Michigan politics.