Your Education Road Map

Politics K-12®

ESSA. Congress. State chiefs. School spending. Elections. Education Week reporters keep watch on education policy and politics in the nation’s capital and in the states. Read more from this blog.


See Betsy DeVos’ Donations to Senators Who Will Oversee Her Confirmation

By Andrew Ujifusa — December 01, 2016 14 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, is best known in the education policy world as a school choice advocate. But on the national political stage, she and her husband, Dick DeVos Jr., the son of the founder of Amway, are perhaps best known as big-time donors to Republican candidates and groups.

In the 2016 election year, for example, the two gave $2.7 million to Republican candidates and nothing to Democrats, as we reported earlier. But their campaign-donation record goes back much further. And it includes contributions to several senators who may vote on Betsy DeVos’ confirmation in the Senate education committee and subsequently on the Senate floor—more on that below. We haven’t seen any campaign finance records, however, showing they donated to Trump’s presidential campaign.

A Michigan resident who’s been a major player in state politics for over two decades, Betsy DeVos is not the first individual for whom issues of campaign donations and Cabinet appointments have mixed. For example, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny S. Pritzker has given money to Democratic Party candidates and causes for many years and was a campaign-donation “bundler” for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012; she became President Obama’s commerce secretary in 2013.

We took a look at various candidates and causes DeVos and her husband have given to over the years to those at different levels of government who are connected to education in some way. We relied on information from the National Institute on Money in State Politics, the Federal Election Commission, and the Center for Responsive Politics. It’s important to remember that several other members of the DeVos family have given to candidates and groups over the years. We’ve tried to focus on recent donations by Betsy DeVos, along with some by her husband, although the donations listed here may not represent a complete picture of their political contributions made directly to candidates.

That’s in part because, in at least a few cases, campaign finance records provided to the Federal Election Commission do not clearly distinguish between Dick DeVos Sr., Dick DeVos Jr., and Dick DeVos III. We have tried to single out only those donation records in which Dick DeVos Jr., Betsy DeVos’ husband, is specifically named. That may not capture all of his donations. We also focused mostly, but not exclusively, on the couple’s individual contributions made directly to candidates, not to political action committees or parties. And we highlighted donations dating from the mid-2000s onward, which does not capture the full breadth of the DeVoses’ political giving.

Big Edge to the GOP

Betsy DeVos herself has given nearly $2.7 million in political donations to 370 individuals and causes over the past 20 years through 819 total contributions, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Just over $2 million of that has gone to Republican candidates or causes, while a very, very small amount went to Democratic candidates or groups.

Here’s a basic breakdown of who got what share of those donations—and yes, that tiny blue sliver represents the $8,000 she’s given to Democrats:

Create pie charts

The National Institute on Money in State Politics has a rundown of campaign donations Betsy DeVos has made as an individual.

In 1997, Betsy DeVos wrote an op-ed for the newspaper Roll Call in which she defended “soft money” (campaign contributions to political parties that avoid legal limits on contributions to individual candidates). DeVos, who was chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party at the time, wrote that her family was the biggest contributor of soft money to the national Republican Party, and that "[o]ccasionally a wayward reporter will try to make the charge that we are giving this money to get something in return, or that we must be purchasing influence in some way.”

“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,” DeVos wrote in Roll Call. “We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues. We expect a return on our investment; we expect a good and honest government. Furthermore, we expect the Republican Party to use the money to promote these policies, and yes, to win elections.”

One thing you should remember is that $130,000 of her donations went to her husband’s unsuccessful campaign to be Michigan’s governor in 2006—Dick DeVos Jr. ran as a Republican against incumbent Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Betsy DeVos also has given $805,000 to the Michigan Republican Party and $193,000 to the Republican National Committee over two decades.

Many of Betsy DeVos’ “not designated” campaign contributions, which total $577,500, went to candidates seeking state supreme court and appellate court seats in Michigan, to cite a couple of examples in that category.

As for Democrats? Betsy DeVos gave donations to 16 Democratic politicians in Colorado, Florida, and Wisconsin—none, interestingly, who ran for office in Michigan—totaling nearly $8,000.

Dick DeVos Jr. has given out a lot more money than Betsy DeVos in the political arena—as an individual contributor, he’s donated $48.8 million to 514 different candidates and causes over 21 years, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. However, $35.4 million of that went to his 2006 gubernatorial campaign. Of the remaining $13.4 million in donations, $10.4 million went to Republican candidates and causes.

Congressional and White House Runs

Several GOP members of the Senate education committee who will be among the first eligible to officially consider and vote on DeVos’ nomination also have received donations from Betsy and Dick DeVos Jr. over the years. These lawmakers include:

  • Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina: Betsy DeVos gave Burr $5,400 for the 2016 election, according to Federal Election Commission records. (That represents the maximum allowable contribution from an individual directly to a candidate for federal office, given both a primary and a general election.) Dick DeVos Jr. also gave Burr $5,400 for 2016.
  • Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana: Betsy DeVos gave Cassidy $7,800 for the 2014 election. Dick DeVos Jr. also gave $7,800 for 2014. (In addition to primary and general elections, Cassidy participated in a run-off election against former Sen. Mary Landrieu that year.)
  • Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska: Betsy DeVos gave Murkowski $5,400 for the 2016 election. Dick DeVos Jr. also gave Murkowski $5,400 for 2016.
  • Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina: Betsy DeVos gave Scott $2,000 for the 2014 election, and $5,400 for the 2016 election. Dick DeVos Jr. also gave Scott $5,400 for 2016.

The 2016 results for the four senators above are from Jan. 1, 2015 through Oct. 19 of this year, according to the FEC.

In addition, Betsy DeVos gave Senate education committee member Mark Kirk of Illinois, another Republican, $5,400 for the 2016 election. Dick DeVos Jr. also gave Kirk $5,400 for 2016. Kirk lost his Senate re-election bid to Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth, however, and will therefore not vote on Betsy DeVos’ nomination next year.

Other GOP senators to receive Betsy DeVos’ campaign donations include Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate majority leader, as well as Iowa Sens. Joni Ernst and Charles Grassley, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, and Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.

In the House of Representatives, which does not vote on Cabinet appointments, GOP lawmakers on the education committee who received donations from the couple include:

  • Rep. Mike Bishop of Michigan: Betsy DeVos gave Bishop $2,600 for the 2014 election and $5,400 for the 2016 election. For 2014, Dick DeVos Jr. gave Bishop $5,200, and for 2016, he gave Bishop $5,400.
  • Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida: Betsy DeVos gave Curbelo $1,000 for the 2014 election.
  • Rep. Luke Messer of Indiana: In the 2012 election, Betsy DeVos gave $2,500 to Messer. A prominent school choice advocate in Congress, Messer has pushed unsuccessfully to make federal Title I funds for disadvantaged students “portable” to the public and private schools of families’ choice. That is a roughly similar idea to Trump’s $20 billion school choice plan.
  • Rep. Tim Walberg of Michigan: Over the 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016 elections, Betsy DeVos gave Walberg a total of $15,500. Dick DeVos Jr. gave Walberg $13,000 over those same election periods.

Betsy DeVos gave Nevada Rep. Joe Heck $5,400 for his Senate run in 2016. Dick DeVos Jr. gave Heck $3,700 over the 2012 and 2016 elections. Heck gave up his House seat this year to run for Nevada’s open Senate seat, but lost. And Alabama Rep. Martha Roby, a critic of the Common Core State Standards who’s not on the education committee, got $1,000 from Betsy DeVos in her 2010 campaign. (After Trump nominated her, DeVos said she is opposed to the common core.)

Betsy DeVos also donated $5,000 to the 2012 presidential campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his running mate, current Speaker of the House Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Dick DeVos Jr. also donated to 2012 presidential candidates Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. Gingrich and Santorum got $2,500 each. In 2016, Betsy DeVos and her husband both donated to several other GOP presidential campaigns:

  • Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush: Betsy DeVos gave Bush $2,700. Dick DeVos Jr. gave Bush $5,400.
  • Former business executive Carly Fiorina: Betsy DeVos gave Fiorina $2,700. Dick DeVos Jr. gave Fiorina $5,400.
  • Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal: Betsy DeVos gave Jindal $2,700. Dick DeVos Jr. gave Jindal $2,700.
  • Ohio Gov. John Kasich: Betsy DeVos gave Kasich $2,700. Dick DeVos Jr. gave Kasich $5,400.
  • Florida Sen. Marco Rubio: Betsy DeVos gave Rubio $2,700. Dick DeVos Jr. gave Rubio $5,400.
  • Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker: Betsy DeVos gave Walker $2,700. Dick DeVos Jr. gave Walker $5,400.

Giving to Governors

Betsy DeVos also donated to Jindal’s campaigns for Louisiana governor in 2003, when he lost, and 2007, when he won. And Kasich and Walker also got donations from her during their runs for governor. Other current or incoming GOP governors whose campaigns received donations from Betsy DeVos and Dick DeVos Jr. in various election years include:

  • Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey: Betsy DeVos gave Ducey $1,000. Dick DeVos Jr. gave Ducey $2,000.
  • Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam: Each of them gave Haslam $5,000.
  • Indiana Gov.-elect Eric Holcomb: Betsy DeVos gave Holcomb $5,000. Dick DeVos Jr. gave Holcomb $10,000.
  • New Mexico Gov. Susanna Martinez: Betsy DeVos gave Martinez $1,000. Dick DeVos Jr. gave Martinez $4,000.
  • North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory: Betsy DeVos gave McCrory $4,000. Dick DeVos Jr. gave McCrory $9,100.
  • Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner: Betsy DeVos gave Rauner $1,000. Dick DeVos Jr. gave Rauner $6,000.
  • Florida Gov. Rick Scott: Betsy DeVos gave Scott $500. Dick DeVos Jr. gave Scott $1,000.
  • Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder: Betsy DeVos gave Snyder $6,800. Dick DeVos Jr. gave Snyder $17,000.

And there’s at least one well-known former GOP state education chief on the list: Ex-Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett got $5,000 from Betsy DeVos and $10,000 from Dick DeVos Jr. for his 2012 re-election bid, which Bennett lost to Democrat Glenda Ritz. And Jeanne Allen, the founder of the Center for Education Reform, got campaign donations totaling $2,000 from Betsy DeVos and Dick DeVos. Jr. in 2010 when she ran unsuccessfully for the Maryland House of Delegates as a Republican.

Donations to PACs

The Center for Responsive Politics, which lists the husband and wife together in campaign contributions, listed Betsy and Dick DeVos Jr. as the 72nd-largest contributors to “outside spending groups” (think political action committees) in the 2016 campaign cycle. Together, they had donated nearly $1.6 million to such groups. And they’re listed as the 65th-largest “overall top contributor” to political campaigns in the 2016 cycle.

Betsy DeVos gave a contribution of $100,000 to American Crossroads, a political-strategy group founded by Karl Rove, the former deputy chief of staff and senior adviser to President George W. Bush, in the 2016 cycle.

And Dick DeVos Jr. gave $25,000 in 2015 to Right to Rise, a “super PAC” aligned with Jeb Bush’s unsuccessful bid for the presidency this year.

Ballot Measures

Both Betsy and Dick DeVos Jr. gave major backing to Protecting Michigan Taxpayers, an unsuccessful push to repeal the state’s “prevailing wage” law requiring union-scale wages and benefits to workers on state-funded projects, according to Crain’s Detroit Business.

The proposed initiative did not make it onto the 2016 ballot. Betsy DeVos gave $125,000 to the proposed initiative, while Dick DeVos Jr. gave $625,000.

Dick DeVos Jr. also gave $100,000 to a successful 2008 ballot measure in Florida that defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman. And he funded Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Kids, which opposed a successful 2008 Michigan ballot measure to legalize medical marijuana for seriously ill patients.

All Children Matter

Betsy and Dick DeVos Jr. have also financed the All Children Matter PAC, which has financed campaigns related to education and other issues since 2003. (See this 2006 story about the group from former Politics K-12 blogger Michele McNeil.)

Over nine years since it was founded, the group gave $1.8 million to 581 candidates and party committees, the National Institute on Money in State Politics reported. In 2008, the state of Ohio fined All Children Matter $5.2 million for skirting campaign finance rules—the state found that the PAC improperly funneled the donations through Virginia, which had no campaign-contribution limits. All Children Matter has declined to pay that fine, the Columbus Dispatch reported recently.

Other elected officials who have received money from the PAC in recent years include:

  • Indiana state Rep. Robert Behning ($4,500), a Republican and the chairman of the Indiana House education committee;
  • Former GOP Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels ($35,000), who worked closely with former Indiana schools chief Tony Bennett;
  • Louisiana state Rep. Walt Leger ($500), a Democrat who in 2014 opposed Jindal’s efforts to get rid of the Common Core State Standards, albeit seven years after the PAC’s donation to his campaign;
  • Former Democratic Georgia state Rep. Alisha Thomas Morgan ($1,750), who received money from All Children Matter in 2010 in her campaign for state representative. Morgan ran for state schools chief in 2014 and also received campaign donations from StudentsFirst, the advocacy group founded by former District of Columbia schools chief Michelle Rhee, who like DeVos met with Trump after his election victory to discuss education policy;
  • Andy Smarick ($3,000), a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former deputy education commissioner in New Jersey, who ran unsuccessfully for the Maryland House of Delegates in 2006 as a Republican.

Ethics and Rules

So what could Betsy DeVos do or not do in terms of campaign donations if she becomes education secretary?

As education secretary, DeVos would be allowed to donate money to candidates, but she would be prohibited from soliciting or discouraging donations to candidates, said Meredith McGehee, a strategic adviser at the Campaign Legal Center.

Then there are questions about her finances. Betsy DeVos is chair of the Windquest Group, a private investment-management firm she runs with Dick DeVos Jr. On its website, the group lists the West Michigan Aviation Academy, a public charter school, as part of its “portfolio.” No other education-related assets are listed on the group’s website.

DeVos would likely sit down with counsel at the Education Department to determine if she would need to divest herself of any personal financial holdings in the education field, or if she would need to build some kind of firewall between herself and education-related assets or institutions her husband controls, McGehee said. (In a Wednesday radio interview, Dick DeVos Jr. said his wife had stepped away from virtually all her other interests in order to focus on the secretary position, should she be confirmed.)

As for the senators who may vote on her confirmation who have received donations from DeVos and her husband? There’s nothing legally preventing them from voting on DeVos’ nomination. That may not be an unusual situation, McGehee said, but it reveals something important about the current situation.

“It looks awful. Obviously they have a conflict. You might hope for some senators to recuse themselves,” McGehee said. “Dollars to doughnuts that’s not going to happen. In an ideal world, that would be how it would work. I have very low expectations for that.”

Photos from top: Former President George H.W. Bush, right, and Betsy DeVos, then-chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, answer reporters’ questions in 2000, in Sterling Heights, Mich. (AP Photo/Paul Warner); President-elect Donald Trump with DeVos after meeting with her to discuss education issues (Carolyn Kaster/AP); Indiana Rep. Luke Messer, a Republican and school choice advocate. (Andrew Harnik/AP-File)

Holly Peele, Library Director contributed to this article.