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Special-interest money flows to incumbents, front-runners

Published September 10, 2012 10:58 am

Politics • No matter the party, Utah politicians count on big donors to help them beat cash-poor challengers.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

Incumbents are running in 70 Utah legislative races, and 59 of them have pulled out to runaway leads in campaign fundraising — thanks to a flood of special-interest money.

A typical incumbent has outraised a challenger by nearly a 5-1 margin, with two-thirds of the cash pouring in from corporations, political action committees and lobbyists.

Of the $717,206 in special-interest cash going into these races, 92 percent went to incumbents.

"PACs and other organizations seem reluctant to support challengers for fear of angering the incumbent," says Roger Donohoe.

The Democrat is one of the exceptions to the rule, having managed to outraise Rep. Jack Draxler, R-North Logan. It hasn't been easy.

"I have been told by at least one group that it is their policy not to support a challenger unless there is an extreme need to defeat the incumbent," Donohoe said.

Brigham Young University political science professor Quin Monson says there's a simple explanation for the pattern.

"You want to side with a winner. If someone has a 90 percent chance of winning, why risk angering them by giving to their challenger?"

The lopsided campaign contributions, on top of recent redistricting that was friendly to incumbents, mean Utahns likely won't see many competitive races for the Legislature on Election Day. The donations also may raise questions about whether incumbents are beholden to the special interests fueling their political aspirations.

"When you get money from those people, there is a tendency to listen to them more," said Kim Burningham a former state lawmaker and chairman of the group Utahns for Ethical Government. "If you listen to the arguments from lobbyists who have given you money, you listen to it favorably. You may never even hear the opposing argument as clearly and as well."

Burningham's group has pushed — so far unsuccessfully — an ethics initiative that would, among other things, limit campaign contributions.

"When so much money comes from special interests, many legislators don't even worry about getting money from their local constituents," he said. "We need to change that and level the playing field."

Challenger struggles • Financial disclosure forms show that few challengers have raised enough money to mount serious campaigns. Incumbents have raised an average of $14,378 each, compared to just $3,207 for challengers.

Candidate totals are available at sltrib.com.

Only five challengers have outraised incumbents. Three managed to attract significant special-interest money with some incumbent-like advantages.

Those three are a former legislator, Democrat Neil Hansen, who is challenging Rep. Jeremy Peterson, R-Ogden; Republican Anne-Marie Lampropoulos, whose husband, Fred, once ran for governor and who is running against Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay; and Summit County Councilman Chris Robinson, who is taking on Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber.

"I do have some contacts with special interests that helped," acknowledged Lampropoulos, whose spouse has been one of the state's big political donors. Still, special interests chipped in only about $7,000 of the $29,000 she raised, compared to $13,000 total for Moss. Lampropoulos said most of the donations came from people who like her message.

Robinson, meanwhile, has developed a wide network of supporters over two campaigns for county council.

"I have a lot of friends of different stripes and haven't had to ask hard for money," he said.

Robinson has outraised Powell $15,630 to $9,287 — an edge aided by the fact Powell refuses special-interest donations. The incumbent said it's a matter of principle and trust.

"Voters want to trust you and feel that you are putting their interests first — not those of special interests," Powell said.

No 'special' help •Two challengers managed to outraise incumbents without the help of any special-interest money: Donohoe against Draxler, and Democrat Celina Milner against Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville.

In the Logan race, Donohoe said with the help of friends, he outraised Draxler $3,340 to $3,050. "But that isn't nearly enough," he said, to overcome Draxler's advantage in name recognition.

The list is short for other incumbents whose challengers are either within $1,000 or 25 percent of their total. It includes: Rep. V. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara; Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden; Rep. Curt Webb, R-Logan; and Reps. Tim Cosgrove and Mark Wheatley, both D-Murray.

Another close-money race comes in the one state House district where redistricting pitted two incumbents of differing parties — Republican Fred Cox and Democrat Janice Fisher of West Valley City. Cox has a $1,200 fund-raising lead.

On the other end of the spectrum is the kind of campaign funding blowout seen in Senate District 16, where Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, raised $56,950 compared to $2,265 by Democrat Gregory Duerden, a 25-1 margin.

Seeking sure winners •A sign of how special interests like to bet on a sure winner can be seen in the 13 legislative races where candidates are currently unopposed. Some became unopposed by defeating in-party rivals in conventions or primaries, and others had no one file against them.

In these races, special interests donated an average $7,852 after the candidate became unopposed — and no longer needed money for active campaigning.

Another sign comes in the races of 11 state senators who do not face re-election in 2012 (state Senate terms run four years, compared to two years in the House). These senators received an average $9,620 this year from special interests while not actively campaigning. Six retiring legislators also received special interest donations — an average of $2,844 each.

Monson at BYU says special interests are more likely to contribute to challengers if they perceive an incumbent could be at risk. But that is rare as redistricting has made most districts safe for one party or another.

So even in open-seat races — where no incumbent is running — fundraising is lopsided. Only two of 21 open-seat races this year are competitive based on campaign cash. The two exceptions are in House District 43 race in West Jordan where Republican Earl Tanner faces Democrat Jeff Bell, and House District 67 — in parts of Tooele, Utah and Sanpete counties — where Republican Marc Roberts squares off with Democrat Scott Parkin.

Disclosure forms show that special interests are less interested in supporting one party or another than in backing likely winners.

For example, the Utah Bankers Association gave $31,150 to legislative candidates. It donated to 48 Republicans and 11 Democrats — all but one (Lampropoulos) who were incumbents or candidates for an open seat.

All of this adds up to the prospect of few competitive legislative traces this Nov. 6.

Kelly Patterson, another BYU political science professor, says competition tends to taper off in Utah elections after the party nominees are set.

"Rank-and-file citizens can expand their range of choices by getting involved earlier in process, by participating in caucuses and through campaign contributions in primaries" to help their favorite candidates survive and win, said Patterson. By the general election, not much choice remains in many races. —

Special interests in Utah politics

$2.4 million • Total contributed to Utah state legislative races (all sources)

$862,000 • Donations from special interests (corporations, political action committees, lobbyists)