Analysis Politics

The DeVos Family: Promoting Conservative Religious Values Through Political Donations

Ally Boguhn

The DeVos family has thrown millions of dollars toward financing Senate races across the country involving vulnerable Republicans who support their issues; funding crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) that lie to patients about pregnancy, abortion, and other health concerns; and lining up support for so-called religious liberties measures.

When you think about “money in politics,” the Kochs, the Mercers, the Coorses, or the Wilksesall of whom have made names for themselves funding conservative causes across the country—may come to mind.

You may be less likely to think about the DeVos family: religious conservatives in Michigan who for decades have helped funnel money into influential political battles, including local races, ballot measures, presidential elections, and key congressional contests in other states.

The DeVos family has thrown millions of dollars behind the causes and politicians they support. That means financing Senate races across the country involving vulnerable Republicans who support their issues; funding crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) that lie to patients about abortion and other health concerns; fighting against marriage equality; and lining up support for so-called religious liberties measures.

In a January report highlighting donors “you’ve never heard of” who stand to make the biggest impact on this year’s upcoming election, the Hill’s Jonathan Swan and Harper Neidig featured the DeVoses’ almost unparalleled influence in conservative politics.

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“Over the course of 2015, no family in conservative politics donated more hard dollars to political campaigns than the DeVoses,” reported Swan and Neidig. Richard DeVos, the family’s billionaire patriarch, built his fortune as a co-founder of direct-selling franchise Amway; he is also the owner of the NBA’s Orlando Magic team. “An analysis by The Hill shows that members of the DeVos family donated $964,000 in hard dollars to Senate and House campaigns and to Republican Party committees at both the state and national level. This spending easily surpasses the $97,000 in hard dollars from the Koch family and $72,000 from the Coorses—two other major conservative donor families.”

The DeVoses’ commitment to the Republican Party runs deep. Among their numerous political ties, Richard DeVos acted as the finance chair of the Republican National Committee (RNC) in the 1980s; Betsy DeVos, who is married to Richard’s son Dick DeVos, was the chair of the Michigan Republican Party and finance chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee; and her husband Dick took on a self-funded failed gubernatorial bid in Michigan in 2006 that cost the family more than $35 million.

In a phone interview with Rewire, Denise Roth Barber, managing director of the nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics, explained that for families like the DeVoses, donations are often made to foster eventual relationships with politicians. “In general we all understand that contributions are made as an investment and that they’re hoping at the very least to have access to the candidates once they win so that they can discuss policies,” Roth Barber explained.

A search of the National Institute on Money in State Politics’ database, FollowTheMoney.org, reveals that the DeVos family has given $52.5 million to candidates and committees across the country since 2000, according to state data. However, Roth Barber noted that the family’s influence could extend beyond these reported direct donations. “There are so many other ways to influence and to … spend money politically besides direct donations to ballot measures, campaigns, and party committees …. So when we are looking at this we know that this is just one portion of their money. It’s not everything.”

In her book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, Jane Mayer explained that one of the ways the DeVoses have pushed their political influence beyond direct donations has been by putting hundreds of millions of dollars behind building a conservative movement.

“Starting in 1970, they began to direct at least $200 million into virtually every branch of the New Right’s infrastructure, from think tanks like the Heritage Foundation to academic organizations such as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which funded conservative publications on college campuses,” Mayer wrote.  

In a 1997 guest column for Capitol Hill publication Roll Call denouncing campaign finance regulations, Betsy DeVos admitted outright that she and her family used their money in order to buy influence.

“I know a little something about soft money, as my family is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican Party,” wrote DeVos, according to Mayer. “I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American values.”

Much of the DeVos family’s donations have gone toward helping to fund the politicians and the conservative organizations behind anti-choice and other conservative measures in their home state of Michigan. “With donations to state legislators and Gov. Rick Snyder, the DeVos family—via the Michigan Family Forum and Michigan Right to Life, which they help to fund—were able to pass Michigan’s ‘rape insurance’ law, requiring women to buy a separate insurance rider for abortion to be covered, even in cases of rape and incest,” explained NARAL Pro-Choice America in a 2015 memo, referring to the 2013 Abortion Insurance Opt-Out Act.

The family did indeed play a role in helping to elect Michigan Gov. Snyder, who has signed additional pieces of anti-abortion legislation, such as a 2012 anti-choice “super-bill” banning telemedicine abortion in the state and enacting what advocates called “coercion screenings” on those seeking the procedure. Snyder, more recently, has come under fire for mishandling the water crisis in Flint. Snyder was re-elected after “significant national involvement in the Michigan gubernatorial campaign” from the Republican Governors Association (RGA), according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, which also found that the DeVos family was among Michigan’s top donors to the RGA during the 2014 election cycle. The DeVoses gave another $122,430 directly to Rick Snyder for Governor.

Their donations have also helped other local anti-choice politicians get elected, including state Sen. Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba), who has sponsored measures such as “Choose Life” license plate legislation to help fund CPCs and who introduced a ban on a common abortion procedure this January, and state Sen. Darwin Booher (R-Evart), who has co-sponsored laws targeting Michigan abortion providers.

Although in recent years they seem to have largely flown under the radar outside of their home state, the DeVoses’ penchant for funding ultra-conservative causes and politicians hasn’t gone completely unnoticed. In 2012, members of the LGBTQ community called for a boycott of the family’s Amway company and its affiliates after news broke that the DeVoses had donated $500,000 to anti-marriage equality organization National Organization for Marriage (NOM).

An analysis released in February 2015 by Common Cause, a nonpartisan watchdog organization, named the DeVos family as one of the “major funders of the Religious Right,” finding that since 1998, the family gave more than $6.7 million to Focus on the Family (FoF)​—the same group that spent nearly $3 million in 2010 to fund an anti-abortion ad featuring football player and known conservative poster boy Tim Tebow during the Super Bowl​—through two of their family foundations. FoF spends millions each year to promote its anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ extremism, including promoting the passage of religious freedom restoration acts (RFRA).

NARAL similarly featured the DeVoses in its memo outlining the families that fund the “March for Life” and the larger anti-choice movement. NARAL’s research found that the DeVoses have spent millions of dollars funding right-wing organizations through direct donations as well as donations to “pass-through organizations” that help funnel money to conservative groups, think tanks, and other organizations, largely without the oversight of the Federal Election Commission (FEC)​. The DeVoses’ family charity gave $6.5 million total in 2009, 2010, and 2012 to DonorsTrust, one of these “pass-through” organizations that in turn has donated to FoF and other conservative groups such as Americans United for Life, which provides model anti-choice legislation for states looking to restrict access to reproductive health care.

In 2011, the DeVos family gave $3 million to the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the Koch-backed organization, through an unrestricted grant. As Adele Stan reported for Rewire, the Americans for Prosperity advocacy arm spent millions of dollars in the 2012 elections—and nearly all of that money was spent supporting anti-choice candidates.

Further analysis of the family’s giving shows that their opposition to abortion also prompted the DeVoses to give millions to conservative causes such as CPCs and other anti-choice organizations through their family foundations.

Between 1998 and 2013, two of the family’s charitable organizations—the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation and the DeVos Urban Leadership Initiative (formerly the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation)—have given more than $1.1 million in unrestricted grants to a single CPC in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the Pregnancy Resource Center, which bills itself as a “life-affirming” clinic.

In these same years, the organizations donated heavily to the Right to Life Michigan Educational Fund, giving the group over $1.6 million in unrestricted grants. Another $15,000 was given to Baptists for Life.

The family is also a big supporter of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank home to the Richard and Helen DeVos Center on Religion and Civil Society, established in 2004 after a $1.8 million grant from the DeVoses. The center was created “as a way to improve public discourse on these issues and to integrate serious reflection on the role of family, religion, and civil society across policy areas,” according to Heritage’s website. Its analysts have taken hardline stances advocating for Planned Parenthood to be defunded, opposing marriage equality, and arguing in favor of RFRA-related protections.

Perhaps just as significant have been the family’s donations during elections, particularly in recent years. During the 2012 election alone, 15 members of the family donated to primarily conservative political candidates, totaling over $1.4 million in funding. The family’s Amway company and its parent company, Alticor Inc., contributed another $1.07 million in that election cycle to candidates, PACs, committees, and outside spending groups.

The next year, after their home state of Michigan instated a new law doubling campaign contribution limits, nine members of the family gave a total of $700,000 to the state house and senate Republican caucuses in just two days. Between January 1, 2013 and December 31, 2014, the DeVos family gave $2.3 million to the Michigan Republican Party.

Analysis of the DeVoses’ spending in the 2016 campaign cycle conducted by Rewire using Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets.org database found that many members of the family have already donated the maximum amounts allowable by law under the FEC’s contribution limits, the majority going to vulnerable candidates across the country whose Senate seats are key to maintaining a Republican majority.

The FEC allows individual contribution limits of no more than $2,700 per person per election, and at least eight members of the DeVos family contributed the maximum allowable amount to Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), Sen. Richard Burr (R-SC), Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL).

For many of these vulnerable incumbents, their anti-choice positions are a key point in their conservative platforms. In December 2015 the Associated Press predicted that abortion would play a major role in Senate races in many of the same states the DeVoses are funding conservative candidates, including New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ohio.

This comes as no surprise, given that several of these same Republicans have a long history of pushing their extreme anti-choice views. Sen. Portman, who is running for re-election in Ohio, for example, touts on his campaign website his 100 percent rating from anti-choice group National Right to Life, his 77-0 voting record in favor of anti-choice measures, and his record co-sponsoring medically unsubstantiated fetal pain legislation in the Senate.

New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, meanwhile, has championed so-called religious liberties at the expense of reproductive health care, seemingly a pet issue of the DeVoses given that Amway/Alticor has lobbied for related measures. Ayotte lauded the Supreme Court’s decision in Hobby Lobby allowing some employers to deny their staff insurance coverage for contraceptives with which they disagree on religious grounds, writing in a statement that “Americans shouldn’t be forced to comply with government mandates that violate core principles of their faith.” Ayotte also co-sponsored the Blunt Amendment, which would have limited the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate by allowing employers and insurers to deny contraceptive coverage and other care they disagreed with for “moral reasons.” 

At least nine members of the family have also given $10,000 (the largest an individual is allowed to donate to to a state or local party committee) directly to the Republican Party of Michigan this election cycle. The RNC is another major recipient of DeVos dollars, receiving over $1.1 million from the family in 2015 and maxing out contributions for many of the family members. The Republican Senatorial Committee received maximum donations of $33,400 from nine members of the family, totaling over $300,000.

Thus far, the family seems to be hedging its bets on which presidential candidate to back, and donations of various sizes have been made toward several Republicans who have already dropped out of the race, including Carly Fiorina, Marco Rubio, and Jeb Bush. John Kasich has also received a handful of direct donations.

With hundreds of thousands of dollars already directly invested in conservative politicians nationwide, the DeVoses’ financial contributions in 2016 mean the family could be buying up access to elected officials across the country. Given their stringent devotion to the causes pushed by the religious right, that influence could be a cause for concern.

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