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Special-interest money flows to incumbents, front-runners
Politics » No matter the party, Utah politicians count on big donors to help them beat cash-poor challengers.
First Published Sep 09 2012 07:34 pm • Last Updated Dec 25 2012 11:31 pm

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.

At a glance

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)

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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."

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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.

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