$35M spent on 2018 state Senate races — the most in Michigan history

    Laura Cox (left) and Dayna Polehanki (right)

    The 2018 campaign for the Michigan Senate turned out to be the most expensive in state history, clocking in at $34.5 million across the primary and general elections, according to the nonprofit Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

    The most recent record was $19.9 million in 2006, according to the MCFN, with spending increasing by 73 percent since that benchmark.

    Interestingly, that was also the last time Democrats were competitive in the upper chamber. In 2006, Democrats picked up one seat, bringing the Senate to a 21-17 split. In 2018, Dems flipped five seats, fighting their way to the current 22-16 divide.

    The individual candidate who spent the most was former state Rep. Laura Cox (R-Livonia), now the Michigan Republican Party chair, who shelled out a little more than $1 million. She lost to now-Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia), who spent roughly $200,000 in the battle for Michigan’s 7th District.

    That was the most expensive race overall, with $2.79 million spent, when accounting for outside expenditures.

    Craig Mauger

    The MCFN cites the increasing competitiveness of state elections as a primary reason for the massive bump in spending.

    “In 2018, there were six general election races where the Democrat and the Republican finished within 10 percentage points,” said MCFN Executive Director Craig Mauger.

    He notes that by comparison, “in 2014, there were four races where the candidates finished within 10 percentage points.”

    In the record-breaking 7th district race, Polehanki defeated Cox by just 3.3 percentage points.

    The report notes Michigan Republicans’ overall fundraising edge, pointing out that “of the 10 most expensive Senate races, Republicans had a financial advantage in nine of them.” The MCFN chalks that up to the GOP’s massive advantage in “dark money” advertising, in addition to the Senate Republican Campaign Committee out-fundraising its Democratic counterpart by almost $3 million.

    Tom Barrett

    After the 7th, the most expensive races were in these districts:

    • 24th: now-Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Potterville) vs. Democrat Kelly Rossman-McKinney
    • 34th: now-Sen. Jon Bumstead (R-Newaygo) vs. Democrat Poppy Sias-Hernandez
    • 13th: now-Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak) vs. now-former Sen. Marty Knollenberg (R-Troy)
    • 20th: now-Sen. Sean McCann (D-Kalamazoo) vs. now-former Sen. Margaret O’Brien (R-Portage)

    More than $2 million was spent in each race overall. They were evenly split between the parties on Nov. 8, with Republicans winning the 24th and 34th and Democrats taking the 13th and 20th.

    The MCFN’s report notes that “of the 10 most expensive Senate races, Republicans had a financial advantage in nine of them.”

    Michigan Senate, Wikimedia Commons

    The MCFN acknowledged that their accounting for “dark money” may be inaccurate, as mailers, online campaign ads and billboards without explicit instructions on how to vote are not subject to public scrutiny. The group’s estimate of more than $4 million in “dark money” spending is the bare minimum of what could have been spent over the cycle.

    The GOP-controlled Legislature in 2013 doubled the contribution limits for both individuals and political action committees (PACs), as part of an overall trend bringing more money into state elections. In 2017, then-Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill bringing the state in line with the Citizens United Supreme Court decision which lifted the limit on superPAC spending.

    Derek Robertson
    Derek Robertson is a former associate editor of the Advance and is now a freelance writer in Chicago. Previously, he wrote for Politico Magazine in Washington. He is a Genesee County native and graduate of both Wayne State University, where he studied history, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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