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Shifting regional political power

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The overwhelming majority of top donor families contributed to the Michigan Republican Party and the House Republican Campaign Committee, while several made political contributions to other committees. Mauger said about $2 million in donations was donated directly to state House candidates from those on the top 40 donor family list or their committees.

Other top donor families in the state, Mauger said, donated to federal campaign committees. John Stryker, of Kalamazoo, was once a top donor in state races but poured about $5.8 million in federal campaigns, including $2 million to a pro-Hillary Clinton Super PAC. Dan and Jennifer Gilbert, who as casino owners in the state are prohibited from donating to state committees, contributed about $1.9 million to federal presidential campaigns, including $1.25 million to a committee to support Chris Christie, $350,000 to John Kasich Super PAC, and $150,000 to the Hillary Victory Fund.

"The presence of money in politics is something that has really changed over the past 50 years," said Ballenger, publisher of The Ballenger Report. "There is so much more money in politics, not just in campaigning, but in lobbying. There are more lobbyists and more money that they are spending. That's probably the single biggest change.

"(Hillary) Clinton became seen as a prisoner of Wall Street and insiders and the establishment. That was part of Bernie Sanders' appeal to Democrats that he wasn't such a person. He was more of a throwback to the old days. Both parties have been infused with money, and that has effected their behavior."

The presence of large donors from west Michigan has been a huge factor in recent years, causing many people to equate money with legislative policy power, former governor Engler said. However, he said imposing term limits in the legislature has had a much larger impact on behavior and actual policy in Lansing.

"That has done incalculable damage the implementation of term limits. That has more profoundly impacted the composition of the legislature than any single thing," Engler noted.

In 1992, Michigan residents voted to approve amending the state's constitution to impose term limits on state politicians. In the legislature, term limits took effect in 1998 in the House and in 2002 in the Senate. Under the restrictions, House representatives may be elected to three two-year terms, while senators may serve two four-year terms. Critics of the lifetime restrictions say term limits have thrown out decades of institutional knowledge and partnerships across the state and between parties.

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