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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.

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

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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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.

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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.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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