(Posted May 13) Michigan’s premier campaign finance litigator knows that, with the turn of the 21st Century, it was a case of win some, lose more in his battles with the pioneering money-bundler, EMILY’s List.
Bob LaBrant, then the Michigan Chamber of Commerce’s senior vice president for political affairs, saw his favored candidate for re-election in 2000, incumbent Republican U.S. Senator Spencer Abraham, get knocked off by his challenger, then-U.S. Rep. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI).
Stabenow’s campaign was fueled by funding from EMILY’s List that she couldn’t get six years earlier when she ran for governor. That’s because federal rules for bundling were much more favorable to candidates running for federal office than those same rules were if that candidate was running for a state office in Michigan. In other words, it was a lot easier for EMILY’s List to accumulate donations and deliver them to Stabenow in 2000 than it was in 1994.
And LaBrant couldn’t even get the kind of cooperation he needed from the business community to at least partly counter what EMILY’s List was able to do for Stabenow. LaBrant tried to get existing business organizations to use “internal partisan communications” within their membership to recommend to management employees of member companies to pick candidates to make contributions to, and how and where to send the checks directly to the candidate, thereby avoiding the need to establish a political action committee (PAC). LaBrant took his idea for a “Chamber Pick Program” to the Public Affairs Committee of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C. He tried to sell his proposal as a device that was like EMILY’s List but with a business twist. But the Chamber wouldn’t give him a tumble. LaBrant reluctantly concluded that the U.S. Chamber had no interest and was terminally “non-political.”
Then bundling came into focus once again in the run-up to the 2002 gubernatorial campaign in Michigan. Incumbent Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus was the favorite for the GOP nomination. He had a single primary opponent, state Senator Joe Schwarz (R-Battle Creek), whom he dispatched easily. The Democrats had a whiz-bang primary cast of three: Attorney General Jennifer Granholm, former Gov. James Blanchard and U.S. Rep. David Bonior (D-MI), the House’s minority whip whose Congressional district disappeared when it was combined with fellow U.S. Rep. Sander Levin’s in the 2001 redistricting.
LaBrant anticipated that Granholm would be the Democrats’ toughest candidate against Posthumus if she could win her primary (she did, easily). So, in 2001, Labrant helped shepherd through a GOP-dominated Legislature Public Act 250 (signed by GOP Gov. John Engler), which limited statewide candidates from receiving from an independent committee any more than $34,000 in direct and in-kind contributions. PA 250 also limited candidates from receiving any more than $34,000 in bundled contributions collected by that independent committee.
Then the same Judith Corley who had submitted a 1993 request on behalf of EMILY’s List for a declaratory ruling from Michigan’s Secretary of State, made another such request. On June 14, 2002, less than two months before the primary election, the SoS issued to Corley an interpretive statement (in lieu of a declaratory ruling) that held that, if EMILY’s List had its members send checks directly to the candidate’s committee (Granholm’s) and not back to EMILY’s List for collection and delivery (bundling), then the contributions could not be bundled and could therefore not be limited in total. The fact that a candidate committee under PA 250 was limited to only $34,000 in “bundled” contributions was rendered moot if donors sent their contributions at the request of EMILY’s List directly to the candidate (Granholm).
That’s how EMILY’s List was allowed to maximize its support for Granholm in 2002 and again in 2006, when she ran for re-election — by having donors send their checks directly to the Granholm campaign. Yes, PA 250 had put some more teeth in the 1993 Corley and Sponsler rulings by the SoS (see previous articles in The Ballenger Report), but it failed to deliver a knockout blow to EMILY’s List in Michigan. In effect, EMILY’s List used PA 250 to motivate its membership to contribute to Granholm. LaBrant was left with the realization that, for a sophisticated political operation like EMILY’s List, with a sophisticated network of donors, PA 250 was by no means disastrous.
LaBrant’s sole consolation was that, even though EMILY’s List couldn’t bundle the way it did in every other state and that PA 250 had made it tougher for the List to use its preferred method of operation, the List was still able to, practically speaking, “get the job done” on behalf of its candidate, Granholm, who edged Posthumus by about four percentage points in the general election, largely by outspending him.