LANSING, Mich. (Michigan News Source) – Every campaign needs staffers, but Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s reelection campaign has taken it to new heights by having more people on the payroll than any other gubernatorial campaign in recent Michigan history, including the legendarily large campaign of Dick DeVos in 2006.
Campaign finance records had the DeVos’ campaign paying 34 full-time staffers by the end of his run against former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who had a staff of 23.
By comparison, Whitmer’s campaign staff was at 48, as of the last campaign finance filing on Aug. 22. When the Pre-General reports due Friday come in, this number could be larger. MIRS has learned Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon’s team is up to 20 after running a low-budget campaign for most of the cycle.
MIRS reviewed the Post General campaign finance reports of every major party gubernatorial candidate since 1998 and counted the number of staff on the payroll in the pay cycle immediately preceding the election. The average was 15. In Whitmer’s last race, she had 23, less than half of her current number.
The difference is money. Whitmer’s campaign in 2022 had a lot of it. Dixon, by comparison, has very little.
“It’s an amazing, amazing thing. That’s the luxury of money,” said Dan Pero, the campaign manager in 1990 and 1994 for former Gov. John Engler, who had 11 campaign staffers in his last race in 1998, according to campaign finance records.
Harbor Strategic Public Affairs CEO John Sellek, a veteran of statewide campaigns, said the similarities between the DeVos and Whitmer campaigns is the amount of money available to be spent. He said the amount the Whitmer campaign has raised is unprecedented. As of Aug. 22, she had raised $31 million, a number that will be reported to be much larger by the end of the week.
DeVos raised $42 million in 2006, but more than $35 million of it came from the billionaire’s own pocket. Whitmer is not personally wealthy. Her millions came from donations from across the country.
Sellek also said that if a campaign has as many people as the Whitmer campaign, that they are able to do with it what they want and don’t have to share staffers with the national or state party.
“With 13 days before the election, our campaign is talking to Michiganders in every part of this state about Gov. Whitmer’s record of getting things done for Michigan families and fighting back against tens of millions of dollars in misleading attacks from special interest groups,” said Joseph Costello, a Whitmer campaign spokesperson.
In 1998, when Geoffrey Fieger ran against Engler, Fieger had a staff of just seven. Sellek worked in the Engler camp during that campaign.
“In 1998, we had a really good partner in the MIGOP, so field staff and door-to-door operations would primarily be run by the state party,” he recalled.
That partnership continued into the 2006 campaign, when DeVos had a “huge field” operation that was being run out of the Michigan Republican Party, said John Yob of Strategic National.
Asked about the discrepancy between the current day Whitmer and Dixon campaign staff, Yob said, “When Dixon loses by four, there will be plenty of articles written about how she did too little too late.”
Pero said there are a few key positions that any campaign needs to be able to run. He compared the size of staff in 1990 to the staff in the Dixon campaign, because neither had the funding to hire staff after going through a grueling primary.
Pero and Sellek said all campaigns need a campaign manager, who is basically the general of the battlefield; a political director, who handles the grassroots and field work; a communications director, who deals with the media and other questions from organizations; and a finance director; who makes sure the money for the campaign ends up where it needs to go and the correct paperwork so campaign finances are filed correctly.
There are many more positions that are available to hire for a campaign from drivers and schedulers to assistants and press secretaries. However, future campaigns also have to deal with a new necessity hire, a social media manager.
Sellek said he could see the larger campaign staff numbers becoming a more normal thing in future runs.
“In part because the state finance system is broken and less valuable than it has ever been,” he said. “Also, there are more self-funders getting into these races, which tends to eliminate the spending caps.”
Another partial self-funder, former Gov. Rick Snyder, had 20 people working on his campaign in his first successful run in 2010 against former Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, who only had six paid staff.
Snyder then dropped to 10 when he fended off Mark Schauer in 2014. Schauer had 24 full-time campaign staffers that year.
Randy Hannan, who was Bernero’s mayoral deputy chief of staff and a consultant with the campaign, said they were vastly outspent by the Snyder campaign.
Hannan said what money did come into the campaign came with strings attached that prevented Bernero’s “dynamic persona” from shining through.
“The big players in the Democratic arena make major contributions to these campaigns and have an outsized voice in the messaging and priorities of the campaign itself,” he said.
He said they are paying for the TV ad, so they get to say what it looks like. He said Bernero could have had a better shot against Snyder if he had been allowed to be himself.
“I don’t think there was realistically any way to win that campaign in the absence of about three times more money,” Hannan said.
He said he also believed it would have been closer if social media was as popular as it is now.
Sellek said the fundraising efforts of the Whitmer campaign are well beyond anything Engler or former Sen. Dick Posthumus did.
Bill Schuette reported only having five staff in 2018, which is the same number as Granholm in 2002. Her opponent that year, Posthumus, had 11 full-time staffers.