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Mystery donors to political groups seek to sway Utah voters



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Freedom Path also must follow rules on how it spends its money. Nonprofits can use only half of their cash on ads supporting or opposing a candidate. Most of it must be spent advocating for a political issue.

In practicality, all of Freedom Path’s money so far has been spent supporting Hatch. Its issue-advocacy ads have supported a balanced budget amendment and opposed health reform, while at the same time touting Hatch’s role in these efforts.

At a glance

Outside spending

Political organizations are spending big to persuade Utah voters to either re-elect Sen. Orrin Hatch or give an upstart Republican a chance to take his spot in Washington.

Here are the groups and how much they have spent so far:

FreedomWorks

Purpose » Opposes Hatch

Amount » $571,000

Purchased » TV and radio ad, mailings, polls

Freedom Path

Purpose » Supports Hatch

Amount » $280,000

Purchased » TV ads, mailings

National Rifle Association PAC

Purpose » Supports Hatch

Amount » $13,500

Purchased » Mailer

American College of Radiology PAC

Purpose » Supports Hatch

Amount » $77,000

Purchased » Mailers

Source: Federal Election Commission

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The political ads have attacked Senate challengers Liljenquist and Chris Herrod largely on two state legislative issues — government transparency and public employees earning a pension while staying on the job.

The group has filed only one FEC report, for its latest ad against Liljenquist, which cost $130,000. Bensing said the group has spent $160,000 on an ad criticizing the new health-reform law. Freedom Path has not filed any information on the money spent on fliers mailed to the homes of likely Republican caucus attendees or Web advertisements.

Outside groups » Hansen said he likes Freedom Path’s ads, while the senator wished they would get out of his race.

But Hatch would not ask Freedom Path to stop its activities as long as other outside groups are busy trying to influence voters.

"I have nothing to do with any outside group and frankly wish they were all out of there," he said. "I’d just as soon have them all out of there and let us run our own campaign."

Hatch said he had "some ideas" who was behind the group but wasn’t positive, and he said he has not asked people to give money to Freedom Path or any other outside group.

Hansen said it made no sense for pro-Hatch groups to stand down, while FreedomWorks, the tea-party organization, has spent more than $571,000 so far questioning the senator’s conservative credentials, including a TV ad now running that links the senator to the national debt.


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"I’d be more than happy, if FreedomWorks would get the hell out of this race, for every other group to do the same thing," Hansen said.

But FreedomWorks argues that its activities are far different from those of Freedom Path.

"FreedomWorks has been around since 1984. We are going to be around for years in the future," said Russ Walker, who runs the group’s super PAC. "Freedom Path is set up for one purpose, and that is to get Orrin Hatch re-elected."

He argued Bensing and Slanker created a group to "confuse voters," picking a name that was close to FreedomWorks.

"Their effort is definitely to obscure who they are and to make people think they are different than they are," he said.

Bensing denies that.

"The name was not meant to confuse," he said, "nor are we looking to slight FreedomWorks. I’m not out to pick fights with them or do things that are counterproductive to what they want to do."

Hansen noted that FreedomWorks also has a nonprofit parent group that can shift money from undisclosed donors to its super PAC, which it has done repeatedly as it fights Hatch through the mail, online and over the airwaves.

Well-funded outside groups like FreedomWorks, American Action Network and Freedom Path are likely to ramp up efforts in the weeks to come.

Republicans gather Thursday to select delegates to the state party convention, which will take place in late April. Those delegates have the power to select the party nominee, but only if 60 percent of them back one candidate. If not, the top two would face off in a June primary.

mcanham@sltrib.com

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