Michigan Democrat Gretchen Whitmer's first gubernatorial campaign included a pledge to make the state's government "more transparent" and remove "unlimited" spending from politics. Four years later, her reelection bid is relying on a dark money group that raised $6.5 million from undisclosed donors with no contribution limits.
Road to Michigan's Future, a nonprofit group that works in concert with Whitmer's campaign and does not disclose its donors, raised $6.5 million in dark money in 2020 to support the Democrat, tax filings obtained by the Detroit News show. Two unnamed contributors combined to give the group more than $1.2 million, while 23 anonymous donors gave at least $100,000. The nonprofit is closely tied to Whitmer—one of its staffers, Heather Ricketts, also serves as the Democrat's campaign treasurer, and Whitmer herself has helped the group raise money, both Road to Michigan's Future and Whitmer's campaign confirmed Monday.
Whitmer's partnership with the nonprofit sharply contradicts the campaign rhetoric that helped send the Democrat to the governor's mansion in the first place. During her 2018 campaign, Whitmer released her "Michigan Sunshine Plan," which she said would "earn back public confidence" by "mak[ing] state government more open, transparent, and accountable." Included in the plan was a pledge to reverse legislation that allows certain political groups to "raise and spend unlimited amounts of money."
"I believe more money in politics is not the answer," Whitmer's plan stated.
Years later, the Democrat has not only failed to deliver on that promise, she's resorted to working directly with the same type of political group she derided in the past. The move has allowed Whitmer to massively expand the political funds at her disposal—Whitmer's campaign committee raised $2.7 million less than Road to Michigan's Future in 2020, state financial disclosures show.
Whitmer's campaign did not return a request for comment.
The nonprofit group went to work to support Whitmer immediately after it launched in January 2020, spending $1.4 million on ads that touted the Democrat's $3.5 billion bond plan to improve Michigan's highways. Road to Michigan's Future also gave $800,000 to a Michigan Democratic Party-linked fund and another $750,000 to Keep Michigan Safe, a group that opposed a petition effort aimed at curtailing Whitmer's emergency pandemic powers.
In addition to Whitmer's failure to rid Michigan of "unlimited amounts of money" in politics, the Democrat also backpedaled on a number of pro-transparency moves she could have implemented unilaterally. The Democrat declined, for example, to fulfill a 2018 campaign promise to voluntarily open her office to the Freedom of Information Act, which allows citizens to obtain government information and documents at their request. An April 2021 executive office memo shows that Whitmer requires other departments in her administration to notify her of "any FOIA response that could generate a media story now or in the future."
"If the legislature won't act, I will use the governor's authority under the Michigan state Constitution to extend FOIA to the lieutenant governor and governor's offices," Whitmer said in 2018. "Michiganders should know when and what their governor is working on."
This is not the only time Whitmer has worked to receive unlimited political contributions to boost her reelection chances. During a seven-month period last year, the Democrat used a campaign finance loophole to raise millions of dollars from out-of-state donors who gave more than Michigan's $7,150 candidate contribution limit. Just weeks later, Whitmer railed against "out-of-state interests" for "pouring millions of dollars into Michigan to try and flip the governorship" in a campaign email.
According to a recent Detroit Newspoll, just 40 percent of Michiganders would vote to reelect Whitmer, who is seeking a second term as governor in November. At least 12 Republicans have joined the crowded primary field to challenge the incumbent, including former Detroit Police chief James Craig, businessman Kevin Rinke, and Michigan State Police captain Michael Brown.