In her Sunday feature, Gray took a similar approach, digging up court records and interviewing Bentivolio’s old acquaintances. The results this time aren’t quite as compelling—much of the piece is devoted to the at-times bizarre fallout from a real estate investment gone bad two decades ago—but in the course of covering old ground, Gray does trace Bentivolio’s shifting relationship with the media. She also mines legal documents for some striking material, like this:
“I have a problem figuring out which one I really am, Santa Claus or Kerry Bentivolio,” he said in his deposition. “All my life I have been told I’m Kerry Bentivolio, and now, I am a Santa Claus, so now I prefer to be Santa Claus.”
Again, political journalists are on a slippery slope when they focus on a candidate’s idiosyncrasies. But the Freep’s coverage has generally been measured, even as it takes a tough—and needed—look at Bentivolio’s background.
Money is another important story here, and in that case the best work has come from out of state. Earlier in October, The Daily Beast published the first really substantive piece I’ve seen on the money behind Bentivolio’s bid, which comes disproportionately from a super PAC funded by a 21-year-old Texas millionaire with libertarian beliefs.
At the start of October, reporter Matthew DeLuca notes, Federal Election Commission filings showed that Taj’s campaign had far outpaced Bentivolio in terms of both individual donations and dollars raised. But the gap was closed by the Liberty for All super PAC, which poured $168,000 into ads on Bentivolio’s behalf. DeLuca continues:
And even that number is far overshadowed by the $450,000 LFA spent to help knock Bentivolio’s Republican rival, Nancy Cassis, out of the race in August.
As late as Aug. 1, Cassis, a write-in candidate, was leading Bentivolio 52 percent to 36 percent, according to a Detroit Free Press poll. Between Aug. 3 and the Aug. 7 primary, LFA released at least 7 ads and mailers either supporting Bentivolio or attacking Cassis. While it is not possible to trace a direct line from the ads to the primary result, by the time the final votes were announced, Bentivolio had scooped up twice as many as Cassis.
Henderson of the Free Press briefly covered this territory in his August commentary. And the public radio show “On the Media” also did a solid Oct. 12 segment on LFA, which only briefly mentions Michigan, but shows how LFA upsets the traditional narrative of super PACs funding campaigns to “buy influence” among politicians. The excellent national stories, though, haven’t percolated into local media, beyond quick mentions like those in Henderson’s piece or this “meet the candidates” blurb from the Freep’s Sunday package.
There is room for Michigan outlets to move this story forward—especially considering the substantial sums that other outside groups, like the Freedom’s Defense Fund, have spent on Bentivolio’s behalf, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. These donors could use some sunshine, if only as another way to tell a story about how Bentivolio’s candidacy isn’t drawing its support from local Republican leadership. Will that please voters? Raise their eyebrows? Either way, they should know.
It’s also important, of course, not to forget that Bentivolio isn’t the only one in this race; his opponent should face scrutiny, too. Coverage of Taj, the Democrat, has generally been more straightforward, but the Freep’s Sunday package fit the bill, with a profile of Taj written by Gray and a sidebar that compared the candidates on policy (easier to read in print than online, however).
One quibble about the Free Press coverage: Sunday’s package on the 11th district mentioned candidates from the Libertarian, Green, and National Law parties only in an “also running” list; similarly, coverage of a recent voter forum focused on Bentivolio’s no-show performance, not on what the candidates who were there had to say. While these third-party candidates are unlikely to win, they should get more than glancing attention: voters in the 11th district, who have been through enough, deserve to know all their options.