A Washington lobbyist who had worked for Sen. Bob Bennett and supported his re-election bid apparently played a key role in a mailer designed to look like opponent Mike Lee was challenging the senator's faith.
Tim Stewart, who spent seven years as a legislative aide for Bennett and now is a lobbyist and founder of the group Saddle PAC, coordinated the mailer with a pair of D.C.-area consulting firms, according to e-mails and invoices provided to The Salt Lake Tribune.
Stewart said late Monday that he wasn't the mastermind, but instead was a go-between for a group of Utahns whom he would not identify.
"I sincerely wish that I could take credit for what may be the most brilliant and possibly the biggest single game-changing political play in Utah politics in the last 20 years. But I can't. I am not that diabolical nor creative," he said. "Instead, I am just a two-bit, wannabe political consultant, contacted by some Utah folks wanting to exercise their First Amendment rights. They came up with a great idea and we found a vendor and that's about the extent of it."
The ad, claiming to be sent from an unregistered group calling itself Utah Defenders of Constitutional Integrity, pictured Lee above an LDS temple and Bennett above the U.S. Capitol. Below, it asked, "Which candidate really has Utah values?"
Stewart wrote the body of the direct-mail piece in an April 28 e-mail to Michael Copperthite, of Capital Campaigns Inc.
"It would be good to have as a watermark the Constitution," Stewart wrote. "It needs to hit mailboxes not before next Wednesday and Thursday."
In a follow-up e-mail, Stewart corrected a pair of typos before the ad went out prior to the Utah Republican Convention on May 8.
Capital Campaigns Inc. hired Precision Strategies, an Alexandria, Va.,-based consulting firm that mainly has done work for Democratic candidates, dealing directly with Jordan Karp, according to an invoice obtained by The Tribune .
Capital Campaigns paid Precision Strategies $4,734.25 for the job.
The Tribune previously had traced the bulk-mail permit number to a Cleveland-based company, Hotcards.com, which said it had been hired by Karp and Precision Strategies to send the ad.
Greg Hopkins, Bennett's campaign manager, said the campaign had nothing to do with the temple mailer. "We didn't know anything about any of the independent stuff that was going on," he said.
After Bennett was eliminated at the convention, Stewart contributed $500 to Tim Bridgewater's campaign and Saddle PAC gave $1,000. The Bridgewater campaign said it would return the funds Stewart gave to the campaign.
"I'm shocked and appalled that someone supporting my opponent's campaign would resort to such thuggish, Chicago-style tactics," Lee said. "These tactics were clearly intended to hurt my campaign and help my opponent's."
Lee said he was not suggesting that the Bridgewater campaign knew about the mailer. Lee said his campaign is exploring whether it would file a complaint with the Federal Election Commission.
"We thought the temple mailer was completely disgusting," Bridgewater spokeswoman Tiffany Gunnerson said, "and even if it benefited us miraculously, it's not the right thing to do and we don't want to be any part of that."
She said it is wrong for Lee to be trying to tie the Bridgewater campaign in any way to the ad. "I guess it just reflects the tone their campaign is setting right now," she said.
Karp declined to comment Monday on the e-mails. Copperthite did not return a message.
If the objective of the mailer was to make it look like Lee supporters were using the religion card to slam Bennett, it may have worked.
A post-convention poll by Brigham Young University's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy showed that about a third of those who saw the mailer initially believed it had been sent by the Lee campaign and found it highly offensive.
Going into the convention, polls showed Lee as the front-runner, but he finished second behind Bridgewater.
"This demonstrated that when ordinary people speak out, they do have an impact, even when the process may be closed to all but a few," Stewart said. "Who can argue with that?"
However, those behind the mailer could face an investigation and potential fines by the FEC for not disclosing an expense made to influence a federal election and for failing to file as a political action committee.
Paul Ryan, an attorney with the Washington-based Campaign Legal Center, said any group independently spending more than $250 expressly advocating for or against a federal candidate must file that expenditure with the FEC. Moreover, a group formed for the purpose of advocating for or against a candidate must file as a political committee if it raises or spends more than $1,000.
The "temple mailer," showing Mike Lee's photo above an LDS temple and Sen. Bob Bennett's above the U.S. Capitol, hit an unknown number of GOP delegates' mailboxes in the day or two before the Utah Republican Convention. The back of the ad used LDS lingo, telling voters the Constitution was "hanging by a thread" and urging them to "release Bennett with a vote of thanks." A post-convention poll showed a third of those who saw it believed it had come from the Lee campaign. Moreover, those who saw it found the use of religious imagery and phrases to be highly offensive. All sides denied any involvement, and the group that orchestrated the ad, Utah Defenders of Constitutional Integrity, have not registered with the Federal Election Commission. Lee, the front-runner going into the convention, finished second behind Tim Bridgewater. The two will face off in a primary a week from today.