The political world will turn its eyes to Michigan on March 8 for the state's presidential primaries. Of the four states voting that day, Michigan is the largest prize, offering 59 delegates toward the Republican nomination.
For many years, the biggest name in Michigan Republican politics has been DeVos. Although Mitt Romney is a native son, and his niece is the state's Republican national committeewoman, the DeVos family has long been involved in the state's Republican politics. Dick DeVos unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2006. His wife, Betsy, was a national committeewoman for six years in the 1990s. She was also party chair on two occasions, from 1996-2000 and again for the 2004 election cycle.
The family is not only influential with its endorsements, but with its wallets. With billions of dollars in Amway wealth, the family has long backed conservative causes across the country, including school choice. Betsy is chair of the board of directors for the American Federation for Children, a pro-school choice group.
The DeVos family backed Romney in 2012. Its support may have been crucial for him as he squeaked past Rick Santorum by three points to notch a crucial win before Super Tuesday.
On Feb. 25, the family picked its horse in the 2016 GOP primary: Marco Rubio. Betsy DeVos spoke with the Washington Examiner about why Michigan is unique, how Rubio can beat Donald Trump and why education should be a bigger factor in the campaign.
"I think Rubio's campaign has continued to be competitive across the board in every state in which the primaries or caucuses have been held," Betsy DeVos said. (AP Photo)
Washington Examiner: You and your husband recently announced that you'll be supporting Marco Rubio in the Republican primary. Why did you wait so long to decide on a candidate, and why did you choose to back Rubio?
DeVos: We as a family decided to, as many did, see how things unfolded nationally. There were a number of candidates that we felt would be very capable, that we could easily embrace and support. As the field has continued to narrow, after Gov. [Jeb] Bush exited the race, we felt it appropriate and an important time to lend our voice, whatever impact that might have, particularly with Michigan's primary coming up. That was our impetus to embrace and publicly support Sen. Rubio.
Examiner: With Super Tuesday's results in, Rubio is behind Ted Cruz in the delegate count and still lags behind Cruz in some national polls, although they're a little outdated. How do you respond to claims from Cruz supporters that Rubio needs to drop out of the race and consolidate support behind Cruz, instead of vice versa?
DeVos: I think that yesterday's primaries should have been a strong bellwether for Cruz. I don't think the map is going to get any friendlier from here for Ted Cruz. He clearly fought hard and won his home state and a neighboring state, Alaska as well. But looking ahead from here, I think he has a difficult path to really gain a lot more margin and momentum. Meanwhile, I think Rubio's campaign has continued to be competitive across the board in every state in which the primaries or caucuses have been held. I think that the prospects from here for Rubio are significantly brighter than they are for Cruz.
Examiner: Trump has now earned more than a quarter of the delegates he needs to clinch the nomination. How concerned are you Trump will be the Republican Party's nominee?
DeVos: I don't think Donald Trump represents the Republican Party. I continue to be very optimistic that as we get further along into the process, the more voters know about him, and the more informed they are, the more they're going to continue to break away. That's even held true in the primaries held to date. I think he has underperformed compared to public polls just days before the Super Tuesday contests. I think more and more people are going to realize that they really don't trust him. The more they learn about his record, they're going to break away and go to an alternate. I continue to think that Rubio is a very strong and viable candidate that will represent our party and the future for our country very, very well.
"I don't think Donald Trump represents the Republican Party," DeVos said. (AP Photo)
Examiner: Is it safe to say you think that Trump's reputation and rhetoric are damaging the party?
DeVos: Again, I don't think he represents the Republican Party. I think he is an interloper. In the contests where it is clearly Republicans voting versus an open primary, it's very clear that he is not winning the support of traditional Republicans.
Examiner: What if he does end up as the eventual nominee? Will you commit to support him in the general election, or have you not decided yet?
DeVos: I'm still confident that he is not going to be the nominee. We have a long way to go. As you noted, he has a quarter of the necessary delegates, but that's a long way from 100 percent of the delegates needed. As we start to get into winner-take-all primaries, Florida is going to be a strong place for Marco Rubio. I think the dynamics will continue to evolve and change. The more people understand the totality of Donald Trump and what he stands for, I am confident and convinced they are going to look to an alternative to support.
Examiner: What unique factors are going to affect this Michigan presidential primary that aren't present in other states?
DeVos: Michigan continues to be a state that leans Democrat in the presidential contests, and yet we have very strong Republican representation at our state level. Michigan is probably a microcosm of what the reality is for many Americans in the middle class. The last eight years have been incredibly hard: The economy hasn't grown fast enough, salaries have flatlined, Obamacare has caused families to lose care and pay more. I think Michigan reflects the fact that there is a latent anger. But anger without solutions is nothing more than empty rhetoric. I think Marco Rubio has a message of solutions, and I believe that will resonate very well with Republicans in Michigan.
Examiner: Gov. Rick Snyder has yet to endorse anyone in the primary. With the negative publicity from events in Flint and Detroit schools, is there concern his endorsement might actually hurt his chosen candidate?
DeVos: I imagine that he's probably calculating that himself, and determining that probably entering with a voice at this point may not be particularly helpful or impactful in a positive way.
Hillary Clinton "has been so protected by her friends in the administration and the media that things that should be pursued are overlooked," she said. (AP Photo)
Examiner: If Hillary Clinton becomes the Democratic nominee, she would be the first female to win a major party's nomination. How should Republicans shape their message to attract female voters as Democrats try to elect the first female president?
DeVos: For one thing, the issue that I really want to talk about is education choice. I think any candidate that doesn't start talking about education and education opportunities and choices is missing a big bet. Hillary Clinton is not going to be able to do that because she is totally beholden to the teachers' unions. I think that is one really important area where the Republican nominee is going to have an opportunity. Again, I'm going to go with Marco being the nominee. He has a very strong and deep record of supporting education opportunities and education choices. That is going to resonate very well.
Examiner: Are you confident that any of the remaining Republican candidates can beat Clinton or do you think only Rubio can do that?
DeVos: I would prefer not to do a lot of hypotheticals. I would prefer to talk about the big overarching principles. And I think that Republicans in general have a much better record of and message for those who've been really squeezed and hurting the last eight years. I think that we are clearly in a position of strength when it comes to the big issues facing our country.
If Hillary is the nominee, she is such a damaged nominee. One who, under any other circumstances, probably would not even be able to become the nominee. [She] has been so protected by her friends in the administration and the media that things that should be pursued are overlooked. And so, when it comes to a general election, I believe she is a very impaired and very questionable nominee for the Democrats.
DeVos said, "The Detroit Public School system has, for decades, failed kids miserably." (AP Photo)
Examiner: We haven't heard much from the candidates on education or school choice. Then again, school choice is generally a state and local issue. What do you wish the candidates were saying on education?
DeVos: First of all, to acknowledge that education is primarily a state and local issue. But anyone who has the bully pulpit at the federal level can talk about the principles of allowing parents to make the best decisions for their children. It's a serious missed opportunity if our candidates and the eventual nominees of both parties are not highlighting the issue of school choice. Our recent survey demonstrated that, in general, 55 percent of voters want to hear more about education. Seventy-six percent of Hispanic voters support school choice. Seventy-five percent of millennial voters support school choice.
It's a policy that provides families with more control of their child's education and more control over their education tax dollars. It is broadly supported. It is supported by constituencies that Republicans need to appeal to, clearly. But we have been, as a party, speaking for these people much longer than any Democrat has, and have embraced the notion that empowered parents is the right thing for making decisions for their children.
Examiner: Why and how did you personally choose to get involved in the school choice movement? Why is it important to you?
DeVos: I personally got involved, and have been, for over a quarter-century. I believe that every child needs to have an equal opportunity to pursue their talents and dreams to the fullest extent possible. Education is a primary way for them to be able to do that.
Examiner: The substandard state of Detroit's public schools became a national story this year. How can more school choice help Detroit's schools get back on track after decades in decline?
DeVos: It's not a matter of school buildings. It's a matter of each child's opportunity to have a great education. The Detroit Public School system has, for decades, failed kids miserably. Sure, there are a few schools, there are a few buildings and a few classrooms within buildings that are doing well for kids, but there's far more that haven't. The fact that more than half of the population of school-aged children have left Detroit in the last 15 years is evidence of that.
Of those that are still within the Detroit Public School's boundaries, almost half of them are in charter schools. To the extent that parents and kids are empowered, they are making choices. We need to accelerate that empowerment and allow them more opportunities to make those choices.
Jason Russell is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.