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No level playing field

As long as we don’t have a system of public campaign financing, candidates for seats in the U.S. Senate and House find that there is no level playing field.

It takes increasingly obscene amounts of money to wage a viable campaign, and as financial reports filed with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) as of June 30 illustrate, there are gross disparities in the amounts raised by the candidates. The system mostly favors incumbents and the rich, some of whom are clearly out to buy a seat in Congress.

The amount of money raised also lets us know if a primary or general election will be seriously contested, and which candidates have the wherewithal to be competitive. But we should also be aware that these figures from the FEC present only part of the picture, for SuperPACS are spending additional millions of dollars on “independent” efforts for and against candidates, the most visible manifestation of which are negative TV ads filled with lies.

The biggest and most expensive race in Michigan, of course, is the contest for the Senate seat being vacated by Democratic U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, who is retiring. There are no contested primaries here. The Democratic candidate is U.S. Rep. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Township), who has raised $6,785,654. His Republican opponent, former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, of Byron Center, has raised $5,220,528.

Land and her husband, Dan Hibma, are rich enough to self-finance, with a combined net worth of as much as $35 million. In her FEC report, Land claimed she contributed $1,700,000 to her campaign, 33 percent of the total. But when combined with Hibma’s contribution from an undisclosed joint account, this amount grows to nearly $3 million, while Land has said that her share of their joint assets is $1.5 million.

As such, Land may have violated federal election law, for while a candidate may spend as much of their own money on a campaign, their spouse or anyone else is limited to $2,600 for each election and $5,200 for each two-year election cycle. The Land campaign has claimed that the joint account wasn’t disclosed due to an “administrative error,” which makes her look incompetent, since Land administered and enforced the state’s election laws when she was secretary of state. Land has also benefited from the “independent” support of the Koch brothers’ Tea Party SuperPAC, Americans for Prosperity.

Michigan has four open House seats. With Peters running for the Senate, there is a hotly contested Democratic primary on Aug. 5 in his 14th District, the winner of which will be a shoo-in in the Nov. 4 general election. State Rep. Rudy Hobbs (D-Southfield) has raised $532,651, Southfield Mayor Brenda Lawrence has raised $374,672, and former U.S. Rep. Hansen Clarke (D-Detroit) has raised $138,461. Clarke served one term in Congress before losing the 2012 primary to Peters. He lags in fundraising because he entered the race late. The fourth Democratic candidate, Burgess Foster, didn’t file an FEC report and neither did Republican candidate Christina Conyers.

The other safe Democratic district with an open seat is the 12th District, where Rep. John Dingell (D-Dearborn) is retiring as the longest-serving member in the history of Congress. But there isn’t much of a contest here, for Dingell’s wife, Debbie Dingell, who chairs the Wayne State University Board of Governors, has raised $934,593. Her primary opponent, Raymond Mullins, has only raised $5,852. Republican candidate Terry Bowman has raised $18,660.

In the 8th District, where Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Brighton) is retiring, the Republican primary contest is between an establishment conservative, former state Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop (R-Rochester), who has raised $348,668, and a Tea Party extremist, state Rep. Tom McMillin (R-Rochester Hills), who has raised 187,692. Four Democrats are also running for the seat, with Ingham County Treasurer Eric Schertzing raising $147,076 and Susan Grettenberger raising $58,060. The other two Democratic candidates, Ken Darga and Jeffrey Hank, didn’t file FEC reports.

The retirement of Rep. Dave Camp (R-Midland) opened up the 4th District, where businessman Paul Mitchell is trying to buy the seat, having raised $1,921,897, with 99 percent of it, $1,911,081, straight from his own wallet. Also running in the Republican primary are state Sen. John Moolenaar (R-Midland), who has raised $453,162, and Peter Konetchy, who has raised $19,078, 68 percent of which, $13,041, is self-financed. The Democratic candidate, Jeff Holmes, has only raised $3,726.

But when it comes to buying a seat, this year’s champion is David Trott, an establishment conservative running in the 11th District Republican primary against incumbent Tea Party extremist Rep. Kerry Bentivolio (R-Milford). Trott, whose net worth is as much as $204.9 million, has raised $3,415,400, with 71 percent of it, $2,423,402, coming out of his own pocket. Bentivolio has raised $560,291.

Four Democrats are also running for this seat. Anil Kumar has raised $754,048, more than Bentivolio, Bobby McKenzie has raised $352,887, and Nancy Skinner, who made a strong run against former Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Bloomfield Hills) in 2006 and entered the race late, has only raised $7,690. The remaining candidate, Bill Roberts, a follower of conspiracy theorist Lyndon LaRouche, didn’t file an FEC report.

Another Republican primary contest between a Tea Party incumbent and a largely self-financed establishment conservative challenger is in the 3rd District, where Rep. Justin Amash (R-Cascade Township), who has raised $1,562,922, faces off against Brian Ellis, who has raised $1,390,285, 58 percent of which, $807,214, is his own money. The Democratic candidate, Bob Goodrich, is almost entirely self-financed, having contributed $60,000 of the $60,300 he has raised.

In the 1st District, Rep. Dan Benishek (R-Crystal Falls), originally elected with Tea Party support, has raised $1,467,414, compared to primary challenger Alan Arcand, who has raised $17,371 and claims to be the true Tea Party candidate. But a more serious threat is the Democratic candidate, former Kalkaska County Sheriff Jerry Cannon, who has raised $641,452.

Similarly, in the 7th District, Tea Party Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Tipton), who has raised $1,274,027, has little to fear from primary challenger Douglas North, who didn’t file an FEC report, but faces a formidable challenge in the fall from former state Rep. Pam Byrnes (D-Chelsea), who has raised $904,484.

In the 6th District, Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) has a massive war chest of $2,446,090, compared to primary challenger Jim Bussler, who has only raised $4,698. But the Democratic candidate, Paul Clements, seems ready for a serious run, having raised $488,153.

The remaining five members of the Michigan congressional delegation have safe seats and are cruising to re-election. The only one to experience a hiccup is 13th District Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit), who was briefly kicked off the ballot due to petition circulators not being registered to vote and then restored to the ballot because this requirement was previously found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. Conyers has raised $570,130, while primary challenger Horace Sheffield III and Republican candidate Jeff Gorman didn’t file FEC reports.

In the 9th District, Rep. Sander Levin (D-Roseville), brother of Carl Levin, has raised $1,169,490, while Republican challenger George Brikho has raised $26,829. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) in the 5th District has raised $600,275, while both Republican candidates, Tom Whitmire and Allen Hardwick, didn’t file FEC reports. Similarly, 10th District Rep. Candice Miller (R-Shelby Township) has raised $662,094, while Democratic challenger Chuck Stadler didn’t file an FEC report. In the 2nd District, Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Zeeland) has raised $969,930, compared to $33,376 raised by Democratic challenger Dean Vanderstelt.

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