On 7 February 2017, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as Secretary of Education in the new Trump administration by a narrow 51-50 margin, with the tie-breaking vote being cast by Vice President Mike Pence. All of the votes approving DeVos were cast by Republican senators, leading some of her detractors to posit the theory that she had essentially paid for her position via campaign contributions.
That theory was illustrated by several charts circulated online that allegedly documented the amount of money DeVos had contributed to various senators:
The above-displayed chart first appeared on Reddit, but the data it incorporates was taken from a report published by the Center for American Progress. That report included another chart showing the DeVos family’s campaign contributions:
A similar report filed by the Center for Responsive Politics stated that “Betsy DeVos and her relatives have given at least $20.2 million to Republican candidates, party committees, PACs and super PACs” since 1989:
In the 2016 cycle alone, the family had given at least $10 million as of late October to a host of GOP candidates and committees. Much of that — $4.4 million — went to super PACs: those supporting the White House bids of Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz as well as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and businesswoman Carly Fiorina, and the Koch brothers-backed Freedom Partners Action Fund and the super PAC started by Republican strategist Karl Rove, American Crossroads; the latter two groups helped support numerous Republicans in tight House and Senate races.
However, these charts don’t show how much Betsy DeVos personally contributed to Republican campaigns. A second chart from the Center for Responsive Politics documented that Betsy DeVos herself was only responsible for about 7% of these contributions:
It should also be noted that these charts tally cumulative donations made over the span of two and a half decades (although the 2016 campaign cycle comprised the bulk of those donations).
None of this information in itself establishes that the contributions were made with the intent of gaining office for Betsy DeVos, or that they had that effect (intended or not). Republican senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, for example, received $43,200 from the DeVos family but voted “No” during Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearing. And although nearly all the Republican senators who had received contributions from the DeVos family voted “Yes,” so did all the Republican senators who had not received any contributions from the DeVos family.
The Washington Post posited a much more likely explanation for the confirmation vote breakdown — partisanship:
If Democrats controlled the Senate, DeVos would have lost her confirmation. There’s every reason to believe that [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell let [Susan] Collins and Murkowski vote “no” on DeVos for political reasons, holding enough votes in reserve to assure she’d win. The motivation was partisan support for a Republican nominee, not that a small fraction of his past campaign financing depended on DeVos’s generosity.
The Washington Post also noted that while the DeVos family contributed millions of dollars to Republican candidates, their contributions constituted only a sliver of the total money raised by those campaigns:
It’s no secret that DeVos and her family have been major donors to the Republican Party over the last few decades. In 1997, DeVos wrote that her family was the “largest single contributor of soft money” to the Republicans:
I know a little something about soft money, as my family is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican party. Occasionally 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.
They are right. We do expect some things in return.
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.
During DeVos’ confirmation hearing in January 2017, Senator Bernie Sanders asked her about how much her family had contributed to the Republican Party over the years, and she averred that an estimate of about $200 million might be accurate:
Sanders: “Mrs. DeVos, there is a growing fear, I think, in this country that we are moving toward what some would call an oligarchic form of society, where a small number of very, very wealthy billionaires control, to a significant degree, our economic and political life. Would you be so kind as to tell us how much your family has contributed to the Republican Party over the years?”
DeVos: “Senator, first of all thank you for that question. I again was pleased to meet you in your office last week. I wish I could give you that number. I don’t know.”
Sanders: “I have heard the number was $200 million. Does that sound in the ballpark?”
DeVos: “Collectively? Between my entire family?”
Sanders: “Yeah, over the years.”
DeVos: “That’s possible”
Sanders: “Okay. My question is, and I don’t mean to be rude. Do you think, if you were not a multi-billionaire, if your family has not made hundreds of millions of dollars of contributions to the Republican Party, that you would be sitting here today?”
DeVos: “Senator, as a matter of fact, I do think that there would be that possibility. I’ve worked very hard on behalf of parents and children for the last almost 30 years to be a voice for students and to empower parents to make decisions on behalf of their children, primarily low-income children.”
Senate education committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) told Politico that the DeVos family’s contributions were made legally and were properly disclosed:
“All of that is disclosed,” Alexander said. “You can ask those senators and evaluate it yourself. That’s the reason we have limits on campaign contributions and we have disclosures of those things.”
A spokesperson for Florida senator Marco Rubio, who was singled out for having received nearly $100,000 from the DeVos family, defended his acceptance of those contributions:
“People contribute to Senator Rubio’s campaign because they support his agenda. Ms. DeVos is a strong supporter of empowering parents and providing educational opportunity for all, policies Senator Rubio has supported for over a decade. Her nomination was opposed by Democrats who take millions of dollars from the big unions obsessed with denying school choice to low-income children.”