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Shifting regional political power


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Historically, both Democrats and Republicans in state and local politics have had differences between moderate members of their party and those on the far left or right. Former President Jimmy Carter, who was viewed as a moderate Washington Democratic outsider when first elected to the White House, was challenged by liberals in his own party in the 1980 Democratic presidential primary. Today, the GOP's establishment is undergoing change as the tea party and others with libertarian and anti-establishment views identify as Republicans.

Among the anti-establishment is west Michigan native and current U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who along with family members have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to special interest campaigns in Michigan and across the nation. Earlier this year, DeVos encouraged conservatives at a conference in Gaylord to fight the education establishment. In 1997, after funding a failed attempt to expand school vouchers across the state, DeVos, openly stated that the family funds do come with strings attached and that "we do expect something in return" for the contributions.

"The DeVos family, in particular, have became more prominent as fundraisers. They weren't factors in the '60s and '70s as much as they became later," said Michigan political analyst Bill Ballenger.

In 2006, Richard "Dick" DeVos Jr. poured about $35 million of family money into his failed gubernatorial campaign. The next year, he joined with Ann Arbor Republican Ron Weiser who serves as current head of the Michigan Republican Party and is another major fundraiser for the state's GOP to work on laying the groundwork for Michigan's Right to Work law, which was passed in 2012. In the 2014-2015 political cycle, the DeVos family contributed about $3.4 million to political committees in the state, followed by Weiser, who contributed more than $800,000.

The flow of money into Michigan politics, therefore, adds yet another definition to political influence in the legislature. Yet, another take on political power can be viewed from a geographical standpoint.

"When I first entered the legislature in 1979, there was much more influence held by the city of Detroit and the inner ring suburbs around Detroit, and that related to the population base," said former Republican House Speaker Paul Hillegonds, who represented the Holland area in west Michigan until 1996. "Since then, the population has continued to move out, and the out-state areas have gained population. But I think the main change has been the shift from the urban area and inner-ring suburbs to the out-ring suburbs. That has benefitted Republicans, for sure, and has also diminished the (power of the) urban area of the state, too."

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