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Lansing — A group aligned with Michigan Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Gretchen Whitmer on Tuesday launched a five-week, $1.8 million advertising campaign that will put the East Lansing Democrat in television ads for the first time this cycle.

Build a Better Michigan is airing “issue ads” that feature Whitmer but do not directly advocate for her election. In the first of at least two planned commercials, the former Senate minority leader touts her role in raising Michigan's minimum wage and expanding Medicaid health care eligibility.

“But there’s still more work to do, like invest in skills training and repeal the retirement tax,” Whitmer says, referencing a 2011 tax code overhaul that eliminated an exemption on pension income, “so that people can earn more and keep more of what they earn.”

Mark Burton, a longtime Whitmer ally now heading Build a Better Michigan, said the group plans to front-load the ad campaign by spending roughly $500,000 in each of the next two weeks. They’ll spend at least $1.8 million on broadcast and cable TV ads over five weeks, “but obviously if fundraising continues to go well, that potentially could be expanded,” Burton said.

Whitmer was one of the first candidates to enter the 2018 governor’s race, but with the Aug. 7 primary less than 60 days away, she is one of the last major party candidates to be promoted in television ads. Her campaign is also expected to run commercials.

Whitmer has locked up most traditional union support in the Democratic race but has seen her early polling lead evaporate amid a spending blitz by Shri Thanedar. The Ann Arbor businessman had spent an estimated $1.91 million on broadcast TV ads through June 5, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

Former Detroit health director Abdul El-Sayed, also competing for the Democratic nomination, had spent roughly $35,000 in broadcast ads through last week.

Building a Better Michigan is a political group organized under Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code that can raise unlimited money from unions or corporations but must report donors.

The ad campaign follows a playbook used in 2014 by the Democratic Governors Association, which ran issue ads that featured Michigan gubernatorial nominee Mark Schauer but did not expressly tell viewers to vote for him. Schauer lost to Republican Gov. Rick Snyder by 4 percentage points.

“Whitmer is in the ad talking about things that Build a Better Michigan thinks are important, she thinks are important and obviously a lot of Michigander’s think are important as well,” Burton said.

On the Republican side, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley’s campaign has aired an estimated $421,000 in broadcast TV ads, while two political action committees that support him had spent more than $400,000, according to Michigan Campaign Finance Network data.

Attorney General Bill Schuette’s campaign had aired $76,000 in broadcast ads through June 4. A nonprofit that supports him had aired $408,000 in ads and a super political action committee had spent $136,000 on broadcast commercials.

Schuette strategist John Sellek called the new Whitmer ad “deceptive.” He suggested she would have to raise taxes to pay for several of her proposed policy initiatives, including a new $100 million plan for two-year college scholarships and skills training programs.

“Whitmer's economic collapse plan would return Michigan to the Lost Decade of Jennifer Granholm with fewer people here to pay higher taxes while struggling to support families on shrinking paychecks,” Sellek said in a statement.  

El-Sayed also criticized Whitmer from the political left, calling Build a Better Michigan a “corporate dark money PAC” even though the group will be required to disclose donors on future reports, including an inaugural filing due next month.

Internal Revenue Service records show Build a Better Michigan is headed by Burton, former state Sen. Tupac Hunter of Detroit and attorney Suzanna Shkreli, who ran for Congress in 2016 but lost to incumbent U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Rochester.

joosting@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3662

Twitter: @jonathanoosting

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