Business

Michigan Governor's Race Could Cost $100 Million as Billionaire DeVos Family Spends Millions to Oust Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
  • State records show DeVos family members contributed more than $4 million toward outside groups that have either supported Tudor Dixon or blasted Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
  • The general election for governor could cost between $75 million and $100 million, according to a Michigan Republican strategist.
  • The infusion of cash backing Dixon's candidacy by the wealthy DeVos family came after Dick DeVos announced in May that they were moving to support the Republican businesswoman for governor.

The wealthy DeVos family is pouring millions of dollars into its long established political network to help Republican candidate Tudor Dixon overtake Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in what could be one of the most expensive races in the 2022 midterm elections.

State records show that since the beginning of May, DeVos family members contributed more than $4 million to outside groups that have either supported Dixon or blasted Whitmer. That massive total includes $1 million by DeVos family members toward Michigan Families United, a pro-Dixon super PAC that spent more than $2.5 million on broadcast and cable ads in the primary, according to data from AdImpact.

The DeVos family has a net worth of at least $2 billion, according to Forbes, and has worked to influence Michigan politics for decades. Michigan Families United did not return repeated requests for comment.

The family made their original fortunes after the late Richard DeVos Sr. co-founded multilevel marketing company Amway. His son Doug DeVos is now co-chairman of Amway's board of directors. Doug's brother, Dick DeVos, was president of Amway before he ran for governor of Michigan in 2006 and lost to Jennifer Granholm, who later became President Joe Biden's Transportation secretary. Dick DeVos is married to former Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

The Michigan Freedom Fund and Michigan Freedom Network, both tied to the DeVos family, have recently run Facebook ads taking aim at Whitmer, according to the social media giant's ad archive.

Maeve Coyle, a spokeswoman for Whitmer's campaign, ripped Dixon's alliance with the DeVos family in a statement to CNBC.

"Tudor Dixon has been propped up by special interests and millions from the DeVos family because she supports their dangerous agenda to dismantle public education and divert hundreds of millions of dollars in funding away from Michigan public schools," Coyle said. She added that Whitmer has led the state in "making historic investments in K-12 education, closing the school funding gap, and putting 170,000 Michiganders on a path to tuition-free higher education and skills training – without raising any taxes."

Representatives for Betsy and Dick DeVos, Dixon, the Michigan Freedom Fund and the Michigan Freedom Network did not return requests for comment.

The Michigan Freedom Fund, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, has been airing ads opposing Whitmer since she became governor in 2018, including as recently as this month where the group tied her alliance to Biden and the state's economy. Greg McNeilly, who has been a close political advisor to the DeVos family for more than a decade, chaired the organization up until this year. McNeilly, who was also Dick DeVos' campaign manager for his failed run for governor in 2006, is now CEO of the DeVos founded investment firm Windquest Group. The nonprofit does not publicly disclose its donors.

The Michigan Freedom Network, a political action committee affiliated with the nonprofit, raised more than $75,000 in June alone from members of the DeVos family. The PAC ran an anti-Whitmer Facebook ad that month which read "It's time to fire the damn governor."

Michigan political strategists say the DeVos family efforts in the primary are just the beginning and their political war chest could give Dixon a needed boost in the general election campaign this fall to make the race close enough for her to possibly pull off an upset, which could impact races up and down the ballot within the state.

"They are just warming up," Mark Brewer, a state Democratic strategist and former chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, told CNBC in an interview. Brewer expects the DeVos family to spend between $10 million and $30 million backing Dixon.

The race is shaping up to be one of the most expensive midterm fights yet.

"I suspect we are going to see a real battle here," Brewer said. "Whitmer and her allies, including the Democratic Governors Association and the labor movement, should absolutely be concerned." The DGA previously announced it's planning to reserve $23 million worth of TV ad time to support Whitmer in the general election fight.

Jeff Timmer, former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party, says the general election for governor could cost between $75 million and $100 million now that the DeVos' are throwing all their support behind Dixon. "Their money, and the others they can corral, has the potential to keep the Dixon-Whitmer race close that (a) Dixon could pull an upset and (b) prevent the collapse of the GOP down ballot," he said.

AdImpact's data shows that more than $58 million in ads have been booked so far to air for the Michigan gubernatorial general election. The DeVos family-backed groups haven't yet reserved any airtime for the fall, but are expected to add to those ad buys.

Put Michigan First, a group that's labeled on a Federal Election Commission filing as a nonprofit, has reserved more than $20 million in broadcast and cable ads to support Whitmer, with spots starting this month. One of the group's first ads since the primary takes aim at Dixon's anti-abortion stance. Dixon has suggested that abortion procedures should only be done to save the "life of the mother."

FEC records show Put Michigan First is financed by St. Louis-based insurance company Centene and labor unions, including the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Meanwhile, Right to Life Michigan, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit anti-abortion group, is reserving $16 million worth of pro-Dixon broadcast ads, with the first set to air in September, according to AdImpact. Records show that Right to Life Michigan does not publicly disclose its donors.

The infusion of cash backing Dixon's candidacy by the wealthy DeVos family came after Dick DeVos announced in May that the family was going to support the Republican businesswoman for governor. Dixon was later endorsed by former President Donald Trump after Betsy DeVos sent a handwritten note imploring him to back her family's preferred candidate.

For Dixon, the timing of the DeVos endorsement was critical, as her campaign went into primary day with just over $537,000 on hand, a paltry sum compared with Whitmer's more than $14 million war chest. The Dixon campaign paid just over $22,000 in April to rent out Mar-a-Lago, Trump's private club in Florida, according to state records. Dixon was at Mar-a-Lago in February for a campaign fundraising event, with Trump seen on video praising her to the crowd. Dixon would go on to win the primary in August.

DeVos education groups go anti-Whitmer

For years, the DeVos family has been advocating for education policies that critics say would pull tax dollars away from public schools and put more funds toward private school education.

Betsy DeVos advocated with administration officials as Trump's Education secretary for massive cuts in federal education spending but was repeatedly rebuffed by Congress. The Florida Phoenix reported that DeVos told conservative activists last month she thinks the Department of Education "should not exist."

Dixon's Education Savings Account proposal listed on her campaign website matches what DeVos and the Trump administration proposed while in power. The ESAs would be created for parents to use to pay for education costs, including private schooling, with funds dedicated to public education.

DeVos-backed education groups that advocate for similar school choice positions have been blasting Whitmer for months. Since mid-May, Facebook's ad archive says the Great Lakes Education Project, a political action committee funded largely by the DeVos', has spent more than $30,000 on digital ads, with some taking aim at Whitmer. The Great Lakes Education Project did not return requests for comment.

In July, a now inactive ad from the PAC argues that a candidate running for a state House seat "will take the fight to Lansing, end Whitmer's liberal indoctrination." A different archived ad backing a candidate for a state House seat says from she is "ready to take the fight to Lansing and push back on the Whitmer/Biden indoctrination of our kids in schools."

State records shows that DeVos family members contributed $100,000 to the PAC in June, including a $25,000 donation directly from Betsy DeVos.

Copyright CNBCs - CNBC
Contact Us