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Television ads play role in Democratic primary race

Gretchen Whitmer, Abdul El-Sayed, and Shri Thanedar
Facebook/Michigan Radio
The Democratic primary race between Gretchen Whitmer, Abdul El-Sayed, and Shri Thanedar is a bit of a free-for-all.

The Michigan primary is fast approaching. Democrats and Republicans will head to the polls on August 7 to decide who they want to represent their party in the November governor’s race. Three Democratic candidates hope they’ll be chosen, and money – and the television ads it buys – has played an interesting role in the Democratic race so far.

The race isn’t what many expected more than a year ago when former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer announced her candidacy.

Susan Demas is vice president at Farough and Associates and a Democratic strategist. She said originally, people assumed the primary would boil down to a fight between Whitmer and Flint Congressman Dan Kildee.

But Kildee decided last spring he wouldn’t run and Demas said, “It’s morphed into a three-way free-for-all.”

That free-for-all is between Whitmer, medical doctor Abdul El-Sayed, who wants to be America’s first Muslim governor, and a millionaire businessman named Shri Thanedar.

Thanadar came out of nowhere, politically, and he’s given the other candidates a run for their money, literally.

Thanedar has put millions of his own money into the campaign. And he’s spent a lot of it on television ads.

“He’s doubled anyone else’s spending and he’s primarily self-funding so when people say where’s the money coming from, in his case, 99 percent of it is coming from his own pocket,” said Craig Mauger of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. He said most of the ads by all the candidates are biographical in nature. Not attack ads. And Thanedar has really focused his spending on trying to get his name out there.

In Thanedar’s ads, he touts himself as, “The most progressive candidate running for governor.” But he’s got competition for that title.

Abdul El-Sayed is a former Detroit health official backed by Bernie Sanders' campaign veterans. According to Demas, he’s captured that Sanders enthusiasm, especially among millennials, but Thanedar has a war chest that El Sayed can’t compete with.

The Democratic primary has "morphed into a three-way free-for-all."

“I think he’s seen some of his support be gobbled up by Thanedar because you have these slick advertisements,” said Demas.

Both Thanedar and El-Sayed have had to contend with tough news stories throughout the election. There was a question of whether El-Sayed is even eligible to run due to his voter registration status. El-Sayed bit back calling the question similar to birther claims against President Obama.

Thanedar, just as he was starting to see his poll numbers go up, was hit with his own negative press. Thanedar formerly owned a pharmaceutical firm that went bankrupt. His company was accused of mistreating dogs and monkeys that were used for testing in one of his laboratories. Demas said voters don’t respond well to stories of people mistreating animals.

“Really, if you have the choice between having a story about you being nasty to kids or being nasty to dogs, I’d probably say a candidate would be better off being nasty to kids,” she said.

Since that story came out, Whitmer has seen bump in her poll numbers, and Demas predicts Whitmer will probably take the nomination come August.

But some of Whitmer’s main opposition hasn’t come from the other candidates. She’s had to contend with outside opponents that Thanedar and El-Sayed haven’t.

The influential conservative group Americans for Prosperity has already spent more than $2 million to campaign against Whitmer because they think she is the frontrunner.

“You know $2.1 million is a lot of money considering the 2014 race for governor we were able to track total spending of $63 million throughout the whole race,” said Mauger. “So $2 million from one group already is a significant amount of money.”

Whether Whitmer will actually get her party’s nomination, or if Thanedar or El Sayed can break through, will be decided on August 7.

Before becoming the newest Capitol reporter for the Michigan Public Radio Network, Cheyna Roth was an attorney. She spent her days fighting it out in court as an assistant prosecuting attorney for Ionia County. Eventually, Cheyna took her investigative and interview skills and moved on to journalism. She got her masters at Michigan State University and was a documentary filmmaker, podcaster, and freelance writer before finding her home with NPR. Very soon after joining MPRN, Cheyna started covering the 2016 presidential election, chasing after Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and all their surrogates as they duked it out for Michigan. Cheyna also focuses on the Legislature and criminal justice issues for MPRN. Cheyna is obsessively curious, a passionate storyteller, and an occasional backpacker. Follow her on Twitter at @Cheyna_R
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