Lee should tell the political attack dogs to stay out of Utah, but he won’t, Robert Gehrke says

Club for Growth is already rolling out negative ads, trying to make sure Mike Lee is re-elected and muddying up our election in the process.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Even before Ally Isom announced she would challenge Mike Lee for the Republican nomination for his U.S. Senate seat, my mailbox was already littered with attack ads.

The conservative Club For Growth — one of Lee’s biggest fans — hammered Isom in at least three direct mail pieces hammering her for leaving the Republican Party after Donald Trump’s election in 2016.

She “abandoned” the party and wants back “for her own selfish purposes,” Club For Growth claims. She’s “having an identity crisis” another said.

Former Republican state Rep. Becky Edwards, who announced her challenge to Lee a few weeks earlier, got the same treatment from Club For Growth.

I’ve got to know both of these women over the years and consider them conscientious public servants motivated by a belief in the system. They deserve better.

So you might wonder: Why does Club For Growth care so much about the Senate election in Utah?

They don’t. Not even a little.

What Club For Growth cares about is getting their guy in office in order to help expand their own influence and use that power to raise more money in order to get more of their people elected to raise more money.

It’s a cycle — and a vicious one at that — because it shifts local campaigns away from the local issues that should be driving them and instead barrages voters with the kind of negative ads we’re already seeing in this race a full year before the primary.

Club For Growth isn’t the only outside group trying to sway Utah’s elections.

In Utah’s 4th District contest last year between Democrat Ben McAdams and Republican Burgess Owens, outside groups spent almost $4 million more than the two main candidates combined, according to data from the non-partisan Center For Responsive Politics.

That includes more than $4.6 million by the Congressional Leadership Fund spent backing Owens and more than $4.1 million spent by the House Majority PAC spent supporting McAdams.

Or perhaps I should say that money was spent attacking the other candidate, because more often than not these outside groups do the dirty work the campaigns are either unwilling or too afraid to do themselves.

And if you remember that McAdams-Owens race, it was probably the single nastiest, non-substantive race we’ve seen in Utah.

Nationally, roughly $3 billion was spent by outside groups in the 2020 election. What’s more, many of these groups end up not disclosing their donors — so we don’t even know who it is that is trying to influence who we vote for.

Here’s where you might expect me to say something like, “In Utah, we’re better than that.”

But I won’t, because we’re not. The truth, proven again and again over the last decade, is that big-money outside interests make a difference.

Especially for new candidates like Edwards and Isom (or Benjamin Davis, who is also running but hasn’t been the focus of attack ads), who are still trying to introduce themselves to potential voters, the early negative hit pieces can be effective in cementing a perception.

They’re effective, sure, but elections shouldn’t come down to who can produce the most effective hit piece — and that’s true whether it’s a far-right group like Club For Growth or a moderate anti-Republican group like The Lincoln Project or a liberal group like Priorities USA.

In this 2022 Senate race, we have an incumbent in Lee who has a record and challengers who say they can do better. So wouldn’t it be something if that was the focus of the campaign?

Lee can explain to voters why he didn’t vote for any of the pandemic relief legislation, or why he was the lone vote against a bill to tackle the opioid crisis, or why he has stridently opposed reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, or why he opposed a bill to send disaster relief to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, or why he was one of two senators who opposed sanctions against Russia.

He could also explain what, exactly, he has done for Utah, or why he abandoned his earlier belief that senators should be limited to 12 years and is running for six more.

And Edwards and Isom and Davis can explain to voters why they think they’d be a better option.

Ideally, we would get rid of the outside influences and let Utah voters pick Utah candidates, but Supreme Court rulings have made almost any attempts to regulate political speech impossible. It’s also against the law for a candidate to coordinate with these groups.

But what Lee could do — if he wanted to — is state publicly that he doesn’t want these kinds of attacks tainting the race, and that he wants groups like Club For Growth to stay out of the race and let Utahns decide.

He should. We don’t need these outside groups, and we don’t want them. I doubt he will, because ultimately he is the beneficiary of the mud-slinging tactics without having to get muddy himself. But if he did, Utahns might actually get to control their own elections rather than just being grist for the D.C. political machines.