Super PACs dump $853,000 into Utah special election to replace Chaffetz

Out-of-state super PACs have spent nearly $853,000 since May in the off-cycle primary to replace Rep. Jason Chaffetz. That’s more than double the outlay of all three Republican candidates combined leading up to Tuesday’s election.

“That’s a pretty good amount of money to be funneled into a congressional race for sure,” said Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics.

The No. 1 outside contributor in the special election is Club for Growth Action, a Washington-based conservative organization. The group has spent $296,900 to buoy former state Rep. Chris Herrod while tearing down his competitors, Provo Mayor John Curtis and businessman Tanner Ainge.

The spending by that one super PAC alone tops that by any of the candidates’ personal campaign committees: Herrod has spent $48,600, Curtis $264,800 and Ainge $110,800, according to their most recent reports to the Federal Election Commission. 

In one television commercial — a Halloween-themed ad with pumpkins and bats — Club for Growth Action says Curtis and Ainge are “busy pretending to be conservatives” and features the two political hopefuls in masks. It then compares Ainge to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. Why? Because he used the word “bipartisan” once on his campaign website.

“I think people will see through their bogus ads,” Ainge said in response.

Club for Growth Action also accused Curtis of supporting tax increases 46 times as mayor, which he said is a lie, pointing to a 2.95 percent decrease in property taxes since he was elected eight years ago. The group responded Wednesday by asking him to prove it wrong rather than “cry foul.”

It’s not the mayor’s only dust-up with negative ads.

Much of the super political action committees’ spending has been targeted at sullying Curtis and his campaign. They attack him for being a registered Democrat some 20 years ago. They compare him to Hillary Clinton. They quote him once calling himself a “flaming liberal” without mentioning what he said next: “I’m joking.”

Though the insults and accusations sting, Curtis has had some fun finding alternative uses for the mailers. He’s facetiously transformed some of the paper ads into shooting range targets and garden mulch.

“It works really well,” he said with a laugh. “The plants are growing great.”

His campaign has encouraged supporters to do the same. Some have cut up the mailers as a substitute for kitty litter. Others have lit them on fire and roasted marshmallows. The humorous approach, he said, is meant to help people “sift through this yuck” that’s filling their mailboxes.

Republican candidate John Curtis speaks during a debate at the Utah Valley Convention Center Friday, July 28, 2017, in Provo, Utah. Republican candidates Chris Herrod, Tanner Ainge and Curtis, vying for the seat vacated by U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, debated on topics ranging from healthcare to religious freedom. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

“One-hundred percent of that [PAC] money is just going to these distortions and these half-truths to try to poke holes in me,” Curtis said. “I think the voters deserve better.”

Super PACs have spent $247,300 specifically designated under FEC rules to “oppose” Curtis (and that doesn’t include money spent on materials deemed “support” for other candidates that sneak in negative comments about the mayor). National Horizon — which received a $130,000 donation from Club for Growth Action — spent $96,000 on ads that made fun of the Curtis’ casual dress.

Perry with the Hinckley Institute believes a “lack of civility” in politics nationwide is seeping into this Utah election. But he doesn’t think it will go over well. Utah residents, he suggests, are culturally more “sensitive” to negative campaigning.

“It’s a strategy that works to some degree around the country,” Perry said. “But historically, it’s not a strategy that works great in the state.”

In Utah’s primary, the three conservative candidates are aligned on nearly every major policy platform, so attack ads are one way to get some attention. The PACs funding the messaging, though, may actually be hurting Herrod’s and Ainge’s chance at a victory by tying their names to the negativity, Perry said. “It could help John Curtis.”

In the latest Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute Poll, in late July, Curtis nabbed the early lead, trouncing his competitors by a more than 2-to-1 margin among Republicans registered to vote. Many, though, were undecided.

And he’s the only GOP candidate to not have any support from the national groups, which unlike regular PACs can raise and spend unlimited amounts. They must, though, operate independently from the candidates.

While Ainge, a political newcomer, has gotten a mix of support and opposition, Herrod has captured mostly super PAC money designated as “support.” That includes nearly $31,000 from the Jobs, Freedom and Security PAC, affiliated with Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas (who endorsed Herrod in the race). Cruz’s group also got a donation from Club for Growth PAC to the tune of $5,000.

Republican candidate Chris Herrod speaks during a debate at the Utah Valley Convention Center Friday, July 28, 2017, in Provo, Utah. Republican candidates John Curtis, Tanner Ainge and Herrod, vying for the seat vacated by U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, debated on topics ranging from healthcare to religious freedom. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

National Horizon, which paid for ads against Curtis, dropped $118,500 in support of Herrod. Two affiliated conservative Senate groups also funded nearly $100,000 in media buys on his behalf.

“I’m grateful for some of the PAC spending. It’s made me competitive in this race,” said Herrod, who won the nomination at the Republican convention in June.

Outside money might not be as necessary in the race if his opponents weren’t allowed to qualify for the ballot by collecting signatures, he added. That way, the race would’ve gone straight to a general election against Democrat Kathie Allen and a handful of independent and third-party candidates.

“The caucus-convention system has always been the great equalizer,” Herrod said. “It brings less money into politics than what we currently have.”

Herrod is “extremely frustrated” that a committee supporting Ainge has distorted his record on taxes and spending.

That group, Conservative Utah, is based in DC and received a quarter of a million dollars in donation from Michelle Toolson Ainge, Ainge’s mother.

“For anyone to insinuate that my mother is doing something illegal by supporting her son is defamatory,” Ainge explained, noting that she has knocked on doors and spoken to constituents with him, but is not coordinating between his campaign and the PAC (which she does not operate).

Conservative Utah, the only super PAC to support Ainge, has spent nearly $213,500 on media buys in his favor. One of those mailers photoshops Herrod’s and Curtis’ heads onto suited-bodies holding large money bags with the phrases “higher taxes” and “reckless spending.” Curtis, of course, is labeled “former Democrat” and surrounded in blue.

Republican candidate Tanner Ainge walks on stage during a debate at the Utah Valley Convention Center Friday, July 28, 2017, in Provo, Utah. Republican candidates, John Curtis, Chris Herrod and Ainge, vying for the seat vacated by U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, debated on topics ranging from healthcare to religious freedom. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Ainge’s personal campaign committee, too, has funded pamphlets that put Curtis’ photo in shadows and call him a “Democrat in disguise.” He doesn’t see that as negative campaigning.

“I think John looks good. He’s better looking than me,” Ainge explained with a laugh. “We have to do something to make sure people know it’s not a John Curtis ad.”

The attack ads have sparked some tension between the three candidates, who openly sparred during a feisty debate on KSL’s “The Doug Wright Show” on Monday.

Curtis, in part, nabbed a rare pre-primary endorsement from Utah Gov. Gary Herbert because the state leader has been “a little off-putted by the negative campaigning” in the race. That in-state support, Curtis said, is what sets him apart from Ainge and Herrod, who’ve gotten endorsements from politicians in Kentucky, Alaska and Texas.

“We have a very strong Utah-based, Utah-principled, Utah-funded campaign,” Curtis said.

The mayor isn’t entirely free from out-of-state influences, though. He’s collected $8,600 in donations from standard PACS, including FedEx Corporation.

“It’s just not a significant amount,” Curtis said, noting that 89 percent of his money has come from within Utah.

Ainge got $1,000 from Middle Ground PAC and Herrod $12,500 from the Conservative Leadership PAC, House Freedom Fund and Senate Conservatives Fund. Those totals are included in their reports to the FEC because unlike super PACs, that money is donated directly to the candidate and capped at $5,000 per election.

Perry expects the totals for both super PAC spending and standard PAC donations to rise as Tuesday’s primary nears.

“This race is close,” he said. “There is still a large percentage of Republicans who have not decided who they’re going to vote for. And this is a very important House race.”