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Well-funded Democratic candidate in special election draws criticism from her in-party rivals

First Published      Last Updated Jun 16 2017 03:45 pm

Special election » Three candidates are competing for the nomination and the chance to be on the general-election ballot in November.

Kathie Allen, who is running for outgoing Rep. Jason Chaffetz's seat, is nearing $700,000 in donations — an unprecedented feat for a Democrat in one of Utah's reddest districts. Meanwhile, her two in-party rivals lag leagues behind with just a fraction of the financial support, and it's created a tense and bitter race among the candidates.

"I filed before they did," Allen said. "I raised all the money. They got in after that. Sure, it's easy for them to criticize people who have raised money."

Allen's campaign went viral in March, when, in less than a week, she went from $20,000 in an exploratory account to declaring her candidacy with $410,000 in donations.

The reason for the spike? Chaffetz appeared on national television and remarked that "rather than get that new iPhone," low-income Americans may have to prioritize spending on health care. Though he later sought to clarify the comment, angry people from across the country jumped on the fundraising site CrowdPac and flooded Allen with money.

Her two Democratic challengers — progressive activist Ben Frank and environmental lobbyist Carl Ingwell — credit luck and timing, not platforms or viability, with opening the floodgates of funding.

"She raised her money because she took advantage of [Chaffetz's] gaffe," Ingwell said. He's collected about $1,000, and spent $500, since joining the special-election race in May.

But while the flow of donations to Allen's campaign has slowed since the congressman's offhand remark, it certainly hasn't stopped. The first-time candidate, a 63-year-old Cottonwood Heights resident, reported $564,000 in fundraising to the Federal Election Commission at the end of the first quarter in March. In the three months since then, after Chaffetz's announcement that he'd step down early, Allen has raised about another $100,000.

"I think that's because my message resonates and that I have credibility," Allen said.

Still, there's resentment. During a debate among the Democratic candidates Tuesday night, Ingwell and Frank mentioned Allen's donations — often with subtle criticisms of where Allen has gotten her funds — in response to various questions.

Of the total $564,000 that Allen collected by March, 88 percent came from folks who donated no more than $200. And her average donation is $35 — the same as Ingwell's.

Though none of Allen's contributions came from political action committees or corporations, most of her large donations — about 82 percent — came from people outside of Utah, including from a few celebrities (Nancy Sinatra among them). That's what Frank and Ingwell take issue with.

"That's not indicative of who could win a popular election," Frank said.

Allen is the early favorite for Saturday's Democratic convention. She's been campaigning since February and has drawn a large following on social media, which started with her venting about Chaffetz.

That's all Allen has in terms of a platform, Frank suggests.

"She simply doesn't have a policy," he said.

Frank has raised about $5,000 since joining the race in April. He advocates for single-payer health care, a system in which the government covers medical bills and the private sector is responsible for care. That advocacy stems from his diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.

Allen — a physician since the 1980s — also disapproves of the GOP-led plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. That's why, she said, it's "absolutely false" to accuse her of not having a platform.

She also aligns with other popular left-leaning ideologies, including support for public lands (including Bears Ears National Monument) and increased funding for climate change research and public education.

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