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Mitt Romney raising less Utah money this election cycle

Published April 9, 2012 2:57 pm

Politics • Donations may pile up again if he takes on Obama.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Washington • Five years ago, Orem's Heidi Hanseen DeRoest forked over $1,300 to Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. This time around, the GOP front-runner's camp has repeatedly asked for a donation, but she hasn't broken out her checkbook — yet.

"I'm still a big supporter of him," DeRoest says. "I wanted to wait and see if he had a chance before I put a lot more money down. I figured he had enough money to get him started and if he needed more money in the end, I might pitch in."

DeRoest has plenty of company.

More than 5,000 Utahns who whipped out their wallets in 2008 to support Romney's first presidential bid are now holding on to their money.

Blame it on the economic downturn, the emergence of "super PACs" or second-run complacency, but Romney has pulled $2 million less from the Beehive State for his current bid — even as the former Massachusetts governor looks more and more like the Republican nominee-in-waiting.

In short, his donations from Utahns have gone down — at least so far — even as his prospects for winning the White House have shot up.

In 2008, Utahns tossed Romney about $5.5 million, more than every state but California. And while Romney still attracts big-time backing from Utah — where many residents share his Mormon faith — it hasn't been the free-flowing ATM that the candidate saw before.

Romney, who is credited with leading the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City from scandal to success, has raised nearly $3.3 million in Utah so far this run.

"It's not a matter of me having any less support for him," says DeRoest, a mother of eight who went through a divorce between Romney's two bids and finds money tight. "It's more of a matter of finances and what I felt was needed."

Donations from Utahns are down across the board for presidential candidates this year, with residents handing over less than half the money they did during the 2008 Oval Office chase. And Romney's cash haul is a driving reason.

Of course, another explanation can be found in the new money-sucking political action groups called super PACs that didn't exist the last time Romney ran.

The pro-Romney Restore Our Future super PAC has still found Utah fertile ground for raising money, pulling $3.5 million out of the state, mainly through larger donations.

Alpine's Randy Owen contributed to both Romney campaigns and sent a $10,000 check to the super PAC backing him.

"Most of his views align with ours, and he has a very strong managerial track record," Owen said. "People who work with him have tremendous respect for his abilities. And whatever he leads, he succeeds."

Owen, the founder and chief executive of Lindon-based ThermoWorks, also notes that his business has boomed since he gave Romney $500 in 2008.

"We're simply in a better position financially to contribute, and there are causes that we support," Owen says. "Generally, we feel we have our views that should be supported in the public domain. The super PAC provided a vehicle to do that."

Matthew Sanderson, a native Utahn and campaign finance attorney at Washington's Caplin & Drysdale, says big-money super PACs are a big reason individual donations to candidates' campaigns aren't piling up like they did in previous election years.

"It's easier for [major donors] to contribute by writing a big check rather than reaching out to 300 of their closest friends, which was the only real option for getting a broader circle of support for their favorite candidate last time," Sanderson says. "Just having that additional vehicle for supporting a candidate does matter."

Some Romney backers in Utah say they're taking a wait-and-see approach. They say the checks may start coming when he locks up the Republican nod and heads into the general election.

"Some people have been standing by to see if he was actually going to be the nominee, not wanting to perhaps contribute until that becomes certain," says Charles Abbott, a Provo lawyer. He and his wife, Oranee, donated a combined $4,600 to Romney in the 2008 cycle. Charles Abbott says he still plans to donate this year.

St. George dentist James Ott gave $500 to Romney's previous presidential quest. This time, he has kicked in $100.

"I just haven't felt that it was as big of an issue this time around," Ott says, adding that he's still a "big-time" Romney fan. "I felt confident that he'd be OK without it."

Ott did pony up that $100 when he felt Romney was "really getting piled on" and says he may still donate heavily toward his candidate's fall campaign.

Nationally, Romney's campaign has raised more money for this bid — if his personal contributions from 2008 aren't counted. And, as of his latest campaign report, Romney reported $7.2 million in the bank, and he has yet to take in any general election funds.

Sanderson, the campaign finance attorney, says he expects Utah money to start adding up as Republicans gear up to take on President Barack Obama.

Utahns might have donated to Romney last time because it was more of an "uphill slog" and the candidate was having a difficult time competing with his GOP rivals, he explains. This time, Romney has been the odds-on favorite from the start.

"It's just kind of a death watch for [Rick] Santorum and [Newt] Gingrich," Sanderson says. "The donations [for Romney] will kick up in the general [election]."

tburr@sltrib.com Tony Semerad contributed to this story. —

Romney's Utah haul

2008: $5,455,815

2012: $3,268,785