The era of the mega-donor has reached Utah, and the biggest beneficiary is Mitt Romney.
Unleashed from contribution limits, a handful of wealthy Utahns have given $3.4 million to Restore Our Future, a pro-Romney group, far surpassing the $2.6 million the Romney campaign has collected from his thousands of supporters in the Beehive State.
The super political action committee (PAC) surpassed the campaign in January, according to financial reports released earlier this week, showing it collected $960,000 from Utahns in the past month, compared with the campaign’s $200,000.
That’s not hard to do when individuals can give only $5,000 to the campaign, but the super PAC can accept unlimited funds from people and corporations.
Super PACs, which are prohibited from coordinating directly with the candidates, have only been around since a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, but it hasn’t taken them long to proliferate.
None of the super PACs is bigger than Romney’s Restore Our Future, which has raised $36.8 million nationwide and spent heavily on ads attacking rivals such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
That includes two $1 million contributions from inactive companies with ties to Nu Skin’s Steven Lund. Those contributions, made in March, have sparked complaints from watchdogs who claim the companies — F8 and Eli Publishing — appear to have been used to make it difficult to identify Lund as the donor.
A Nu Skin spokeswoman said Lund was unavailable to comment. Nu Skin is one of Utah’s biggest dietary supplement companies.
The PAC also received other contributions from the supplement industry, including $1 million from Idaho-based Melaluca and $500,000 from the founder of 4Life Research, a Utah company.
4Life’s David Lisonbee made that contribution in January — the second biggest contribution from a Utahn — because he supports Romney’s fiscal policy.
“His track record in the private sector is encouraging for entrepreneurs both here in the state of Utah and throughout the country,” Lisonbee said in a statement provided by a company spokesman. “I believe my contribution will be used to educate the public on those qualities that distinguish Mitt Romney from the other GOP candidates.”
The PAC has received six contributions of $100,000, two of them from the Larry H. Miller Group.
The combined contributions of Lund, Lisonbee and Larry H. Miller companies — $2.7 million — surpass the money Romney’s official campaign has raised in the state.
Kirk Jowers, a campaign finance lawyer and Romney supporter, said it makes sense that the super PAC would out-raise the campaign in Utah for two reasons.
First, it’s easier for a few wealthy people to dominate the landscape in less populated states like Utah.
Second, mega-donors are much more likely to write a big check to someone they know.
“Utah would be uniquely situated to have people who would try to help Romney in any way they can,” said Jowers, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics. “Mitt Romney is beloved in Utah. People have seen him at work. They know him personally.”
Romney, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, led the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics. He also received 90 percent of the vote in Utah’s GOP primary during his 2008 run for the White House.
So it’s not surprising that Romney and his affiliated super PAC have collected far more money than any other candidate in the state, though it may shock some that he has already raised more from Utah than he did in his 2008 race.
Former presidential candidate and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is a distant second in Utah fundraising, and that’s with $2.2 million in contributions from his father, Jon Huntsman Sr., to Our Destiny, a super PAC that supported Huntsman’s run, which ended in mid-January.
Huntsman Sr.’s contribution kept his son’s campaign afloat, similar to the way billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson’s $11 million in contributions to a super PAC is helping Newt Gingrich stay in the race.
Jowers called super PACs “a very disturbing trend” because it gives the rich the ability to have a bigger impact on the race. “They can give so much more in relation to the campaign donors,” he said.
While everyone from Romney to President Barack Obama has criticized the power of the super PACs, none of the candidates has rejected the help. Obama recently made an about-face on the issue and said some of his Cabinet secretaries will appear at fundraisers for Priorities USA, the super PAC supporting his re-election bid.