Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick to head the Education Department, and her husband Dick at a 2015 game of the DeVos family-owned Orlando Magic. Betsy and her relatives have given at least $20.2 million to federal-level candidates and committees since 1989. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
by Jack Noland and Anna Massoglia
It’s no secret that Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Education Department, is a political fundraising juggernaut. Her contributions to candidates and school choice causes around the country have been all over the news since she was named the nominee.
More consequential, though, are the depth and breadth of contributions by her family — by birth and by marriage — going back decades. The donations have helped make the clan a pillar of the Republican Party, immensely influential in steering GOP politics and causes.
Since 1989, Betsy DeVos and her relatives have given at least $20.2 million to Republican candidates, party committees, PACs and super PACs, according to an OpenSecrets.org analysis. (A tabbed spreadsheet is here.) Amway, the multilevel marketing giant now known as Alticor that earned much of the family its wealth, gave another nearly $3.6 million to the party prior to 2002. And that’s just at the federal level — family members have given hundreds of millions more to state and local level politics and to nonprofit groups, think tanks and media outlets championing their favored conservative causes.
*At the federal level since 1989
In the 2016 cycle alone, the family had given at least $10 million as of late October to a host of GOP candidates and committees. Much of that — $4.4 million — went to super PACs: those supporting the White House bids of Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz as well as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and businesswoman Carly Fiorina, and the Koch brothers-backed Freedom Partners Action Fund and the super PAC started by Republican strategist Karl Rove, American Crossroads; the latter two groups helped support numerous Republicans in tight House and Senate races.
Betsy herself, along with her husband, Dick DeVos, Jr., has contributed more than $7.7 million to federal candidates, committees and parties since 1990, including almost $4.8 million to super PACs. DeVos and her husband ramped up their gifts significantly in the 2016 cycle, setting a new personal record of about $2.7 million. None of that, however, went to Trump or his supporting super PACs.
Not so for her brother, Erik Prince, co-founder of controversial private security contractor Blackwater (now known as Academi). He made two donations to Make America Number 1, a super PAC that backed Cruz and then Trump; Prince’s $150,000 in gifts came after Trump had become the Republican party nominee. Since 1990, he and his ex-wives have given $519,546, including $175,309 in 2016.
Betsy DeVos voiced her thoughts about her family’s abundant political giving in a 1997 piece in Roll Call, in which she wrote that she had decided “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.”
The definition of “traditional American values” is in the eye of the beholder, of course.
It was Dick Jr.’s father, 90-year-old Richard “Rich” DeVos, Sr., who first established the family as a force in conservative fundraising. The elder DeVos, who co-founded Amway, which his sons have helped lead in various capacities, and owns the NBA’s Orlando Magic, has an estimated worth of $5.1 billion, according to Forbes. He’s a past president of the Council for National Policy, a secretive network of conservative leaders of which he was an early funder.
*At the federal level since 1989
This cycle, he and his wife, Helen, also contributed their highest-ever cash totals, donating almost $2.9 million – the first election cycle they have crested $1 million since 1998. Overall, the elder DeVoses have given nearly $6.8 million in federal elections since 1990.
These are big numbers, relatively speaking. On the Center for Responsive Politics’ list of top individual donors for 2016, Rich and Helen DeVos came in at No. 61 and Dick and Betsy DeVos at No. 65. Family members also made the list in previous election cycles – Dick and Betsy were 53rd in 2014 and the “Richard DeVos Family” ranked 54th in 2010.
A web of nonprofits
Savvy political players like the DeVoses don’t engage only in direct electoral action. Through organized giving by its various foundations and strategic involvement in the institutions that receive their money, the DeVos family has leveraged extensive influence in nonprofit networks structured around their pet causes.
Most DeVos giving in this sphere is done through five foundations: the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation; the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation; the Daniel and Pamella DeVos Foundation; Cheri DeVos’ CDV5 Foundation; and the Douglas and Maria DeVos Foundation. (Daniel, Cheri and Douglas DeVos are all siblings of Dick Jr., Betsy’s husband.) According to one analysis of foundation tax records, the DeVos family donated more than $90 million in 2013 altogether and around $94 million in 2014 — with nearly half going to groups involved in education.
The DeVos family’s philanthropic efforts have a more social conservative bent than those of, say, the Koch brothers; for years the DeVoses have provided generous grants to religious-based organizations and — in particular — religious schools. Still, they have found common ground with the Kochs on a number of issues. Regular attendees at Koch network biannual donor meetings, the DeVoses have provided substantial support to the Koch-seeded charitable arm of their Americans for Prosperity, a very active dark money group; the FreedomWorks Foundation, which is connected to another dark money outfit that originated with one started by the Kochs; and the Mercatus Institute, a “market-focused” research center at George Mason University that has received funding from the Kochs since the 1980s.
And the family has actively fought to sweep away restrictions on money in politics with substantial contributions to nonprofits that litigate against such limits. Those include the Center for Competitive Politics and the James Madison Center for Free Speech, a nonprofit set up by Citizens United attorney James Bopp and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that consistently funnels nearly the entirety of its funds to Bopp’s firm each year. Bopp has taken a broadsword to campaign finance restrictions nationwide, mounting legal challenges to them at the federal, state and local levels.
Betsy DeVos may have married into the DeVos dynasty, but her own family has its own strong ties to the conservative movement. Her father, Edgar Prince, helped Gary Bauer create the Family Research Council, an influential conservative group. And along with her siblings, Betsy sits on the board of the Edgar & Elsa Prince Foundation, a major donor to groups that include the Education Freedom Fund, the Heritage Foundation and the Alliance Defense Fund.
Trump’s choice to run the Education Department holds strategic advisory positions with a number of nonprofit organizations that lobby to varying degrees on education issues, including Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. But her baby is the American Federation for Children a 501(c)(4) “dark money” group that promotes school voucher programs and charter schools across the country. AFC has significantly increased its efforts in recent years: It told the IRS that it made just $250,000 in political expenditures in 2009, a figure that increased to over $1 million by 2010 and nearly $1.7 million by 2011. In 2014, the number dropped a bit to just over $1 million.
But that year, AFC and its affiliated organizations boasted spending $4.5 million between the primary and general elections on 242 races in nine states — without ever disclosing its donors. It reported that pro-school choice candidates — mainly governors, state legislators and other non-federal politicians — won in 92 percent of the general election races it targeted, distinguishing AFC, with Betsy DeVos as its chair, as a powerhouse in the movement.
And AFC’s efforts go far beyond direct involvement in political contests. Among other activities, it has funneled money into other “dark money” groups that support contenders for state supreme court seats deemed likely to be friendly to policies advocated by AFC that could be legally challenged.
The Education nominee also heads All Children Matter, a political committee that lobbies for school choice. Started with seed money from DeVos’ Advocates for School Choice, the predecessor to AFC, All Children Matter has been funded by millions from the DeVos family over the years, but has also received substantial sums from the Walton family (of Walmart fame) and other high profile conservative donors. Though DeVos was not personally named in the case, All Children Matter has millions in outstanding fines for election law violations dating back to 2008 — a record amount that is nearly a decade past due. Betsy DeVos led the group at the time of the violations — in fact, she is the only person who has been listed on All Children Matter’s leadership page since 2006.
Supporting the bench
Megadonors tend not to focus their contributions only on those in the majors; they direct some of their investments to minor leaguers, too, as well as those who might have a more direct local impact on their concerns. The Grand Rapids, Mich.- based DeVoses are no exception, giving extensively in state and local elections. They’ve contributed, for instance, a combined $9.5 million to the Michigan Republican Party in the last 20 years.
According to National Institute on Money in State Politics data, Betsy DeVos has given over $1.9 million in state and local elections since 1996, a total that pales in comparison to her husband Dick’s $40.2 million. To be fair, the lion’s share of that sum was the nearly $35.4 million that he gave to his own 2006 gubernatorial campaign.
In that contest, DeVos family members (including the candidate) accounted for three of his top four donors. But DeVos, who was challenging Democratic incumbent Jennifer Granholm, fell short in the general election by a 56-to-42 percent margin.
Overall, Dick DeVos’s siblings have cut large checks at the state and local levels. Doug DeVos, the current president of Amway, has donated almost $2.8 million in these elections with his wife, Maria, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Dan, a sports executive and the current chairman of the Orlando Magic, has contributed a little less than $2.4 million with his wife, Pamella. Their sister, Cheri DeVos, a former Amway vice president, has given more than $1.25 million at the state and local level.
State-level advocacy organizations have also drawn significant DeVos largesse. For example, eight DeVos family members together gave an even $2 million to Protecting Michigan Taxpayers, a group that sought (unsuccessfully) in 2015 to repeal Michigan’s prevailing wage law, which ensures state construction contractors pay union wages to their workers.
But if the family has adopted a second state, it’s Florida. DeVos ownership of the Magic dates back to 1991, and family members have donated to a number of Florida politicians and advocacy organizations. In 2008, when the group Florida4Marriage sponsored an amendment to the state constitution that would limit the definition of marriage to a heterosexual union, Dick DeVos contributed $100,000, making him the second-highest donor to the effort. The measure passed — but it was later struck down by the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges.
Researchers Doug Weber and Alex Baumgart contributed to this post, as did Ashley Balcerzak, our money-in-politics reporter, and Brendan Quinn, our outreach and social media coordinator.
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