Austin Searle isn’t challenging Sen. Mike Lee and says viral tweet wasn’t ‘grifting’

Austin Searle announced his candidacy in late 2020 but said he forgot to file by the state deadline in March 2022, prompting some to wonder if he was simply ‘grifting’ for donations. His entire campaign raised $6,000-7,000, he said.

(Sarahbeth Maney | The New York Times) Austin Searle launched a short-lived campaign to unseat Sen. Mike Lee, shown in a photo in Washington, Dec. 2, 2021.

Contrary to what some Twitter users believe, Austin Searle said he was not “grifting” for donations with his supposed campaign for the U.S. Senate. He was planning to run to challenge Sen. Mike Lee; he just forgot that the state filing deadline for candidates was last Friday.

Running for office is difficult, said Thom DeSirant, executive director of the Utah Democratic Party. Choosing not to file isn’t altogether uncommon. However, meaning to file and forgetting is a much rarer occurrence.

“It’s a really tough choice to put yourself in the public spotlight,” DeSirant said. “When I did not see him file for office, I simply assumed that ... he chose not to go run. So I was surprised to see him mention that he was unaware of the filing period.”

The online controversy began Monday, when Searle posted to Twitter, saying, “I’m a Democrat running for U.S. Senate in Utah to #UnseatMikeLee. I have 55,800 followers. Can we hit 65k followers?”

He was quickly inundated with comments pointing out that the state filing deadline had already passed. And that’s when the accusations started rolling in.

Brad Townley, the parliamentarian for the Utah Democratic Party, fired off his own tweet Monday, stating:

“You aren’t running for Senate, or any other office, in Utah.

“I know this because the candidate deadline was last Fri and you didn’t file. You must have forgotten to do that while you were busy grifting donations.”

Searle called the notion that he was running just to get money “entirely not true.”

“People bashing on me on social media doesn’t really help for the fact that, you know, they don’t quite understand the entire story to all of this, just that I missed that deadline,” Searle told The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday.

Searle said he did file with the Federal Election Commission and knew that the state deadline was sometime in March. But, due to health issues, he forgot the specific deadline until it was too late. It was only after reading responses to his tweet on Monday that he realized his mistake.

“I was trying to figure out what to do,” he said. “But, obviously, there’s nothing I could have done. You know, if it’s past that deadline, there is no way to file.”

While his site is still programmed to ask for donations, he said that the links were deactivated Tuesday so that people can’t donate, even if they try.

Searle announced the official end of his candidacy via Twitter on Tuesday. He pledged to give the money he’d accrued in the last month to the eventual Democratic nominee.

“After the deadline, I started asking for donations, which I didn’t realize deadline had passed,” he said. “So I think that’s the only right thing to do is to give it to the Democratic nominee.”

He said he received $25 after the deadline and that the nominee could expect anywhere from $50 to $100 from his campaign.

In total, Searle said he raised $6,000-7,000, all of which went to running his campaign.

When asked if he believed Searle truthfully just forgot about the deadline, DeSirant said, “I want to view the best of people. And if he says that he wasn’t aware, I’m going to trust him on that.”