By CRAIG MAUGER
Michigan Campaign Finance Network
LANSING — While it’s impossible for the public to find out exactly how much money West Michigan’s DeVos family has spent on politics over the years, the number must fall somewhere above $82 million.
As the U.S. Senate considers whether to confirm Betsy DeVos, former chair of the Michigan Republican Party, as U.S. education secretary, the Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN) tracked more than $82 million in political contributions from DeVos family members since the start of 1999.
The tracking includes contributions from Betsy DeVos, her husband, Dick DeVos, Dick DeVos’s father, Richard DeVos Sr., who was co-founder of Amway, his wife, Helen DeVos, and other family members.
The tracking spans paper reports covering 1999 all the way to a $200,0000 contribution dated Dec 13, 2016 — 20 days after Betsy DeVos had been nominated as education secretary. According to a filing in Texas (see below), “Dick DeVos” gave $200,000 to the Republican State Leadership Committee on that date.
Searching though hundreds of pages of paper records and thousands of individual contributions, MCFN tallied $82 million in contributions. It includes political giving at the state level in Michigan (at least $58.0 million), at the federal level (at least $17.7 million) and giving reported to a dozen other states (at least $6.4 million).
A spreadsheet — featuring more than 5,500 individual contributions — is available here.
The $82-million figure is likely far from a complete picture. It doesn’t include political giving that falls outside of campaign finance reporting requirements, like giving to groups that only spend money on issue ads, or giving at the local level that’s reported to county clerks.
For example, in the 2014 election, the Michigan Republican Party spent $5.7 million on issue ads in the gubernatorial campaign and $4.2 million in the Supreme Court campaign. The donors behind that money never had to be disclosed.
The $82-million figure also doesn’t include all of the family’s contributions that had to be reported because many were reported on paper records that don’t show up in digital database searches. MCFN looked through paper records from the Michigan Republican Party dating back to 1999 and from the 2000 ballot campaign Kids First Yes!, which aimed to institute a voucher program in Michigan, to find some of these contributions. The Michigan Republican Party started filing its reports digitally with the Michigan Secretary of State in 2004.
But for other groups, donations disclosed in paper filings wouldn't be included. For instance, the Great Lakes Education Project, a pro-school choice group that was started by Betsy DeVos, began filing its campaign reports digitally in 2004. The PAC launched in 2001.
In 2014, Mother Jones reported that DeVos family members had invested at least $200 million in “a host of right-wing cause — think tanks, media outlets, political committees, evangelical outfits, and a string of advocacy groups” since 1970.
MCFN’s $82-million figure doesn’t include giving to think tanks, media outlets or evangelical groups.
During Betsy DeVos’s confirmation hearing for U.S. education secretary on Jan. 17, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) mentioned the $200-million figure. Sanders said he had heard that the DeVos family had given $200 million to the Republican Party over the years.
“Does that sound in the ballpark?” Sanders asked during the hearing.
Betsy DeVos responded, “Collectively, between my entire family? That’s possible.”
Other findings from the data on DeVos political giving:
— The largest recipient of DeVos giving was Dick DeVos’s 2006 campaign for governor. Family members gave about $35.5 million to Dick DeVos’s campaign. He ended up losing to Democrat Jennifer Granholm, who got 56.3 percent of the vote. Dick DeVos got 42.3 percent.
— The Michigan Republican Party has been one of the top beneficiaries of DeVos giving. MCFN tracked $9.8 million in contributions to the Michigan Republican Party dating back to 1999. Betsy DeVos is a former chair of the Michigan GOP. MCFN tracked $1.5 million in giving to Michigan's House Republican Campaign Committee. For the 2016 election cycle alone, the DeVos family directly provided about 18 percent of the money the House Republican Campaign Committee had raised as of Oct. 20.
— The family has given heavily to education reform groups. For example, MCFN tracked $1.6 million in contributions to the PAC of the Great Lakes Education Project, which advocates for school choice policies in Michigan. The family has also given at least $711,000 to All Children Matter in Virginia, $200,000 to the Louisiana Federation for Children PAC and $150,000 to Alabama Federation for Children PAC.
— For 1999 and 2000, MCFN tracked $2.5 million in contributions from DeVos family members to the Kids First Yes! campaign to implement a school voucher program in Michigan. The figure doesn’t include giving by Betsy DeVos’s side of the family, the Prince family. Combined, the DeVos and Prince families gave the campaign $5.7 million, according to past MCFN data. The ballot proposal failed in 2000 with 62 percent of voters opposing it.
— It’s now up to the Senate to decide whether to confirm Betsy DeVos. The DeVos family has made contributions directly to 23 of the 52 Republicans in the U.S. Senate. The family has made contributions to six of the 12 Republicans on the committee that is currently considering her confirmation: the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Those committee members receiving DeVos family contributions were the following, according to MCFN's tracking: Sen. Richard Burr (R-North Carolina) ($43,200); Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana) ($70,200); Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) ($1,000) Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) ($43,200); Sen. Tim Scott (R-South Carolina) ($49,200); and Sen. Todd Young (R-Indiana) ($24,300).