Judging by campaign cash, GOP Rep. Rob Bishop’s only real competition in the 1st Congressional District race may not be from his Democratic opponent — but from a candidate in the new United Utah Party.
While Eliason still has only a third as much as Bishop, it’s enough that “we’re going to make a splash and get people talking about the campaign,” he said. He has billboards up and plans mailers, social media campaigns, broadcast ads and more.
Eliason also just hired as an adviser Joel Searby, the former campaign manager for presidential candidate Evan McMullin, the independent who won 21.3 percent of the Utah vote in 2016 amid dismay with Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.
It is the first time that the new party — formed last year by disaffected Republicans and Democrats in the middle of the political spectrum — may be the major opposition in a top Utah race.
The conservative 1st District doesn’t appear particularly fertile territory for Castillo, a proudly liberal Democrat. His platform calls for protecting the legal status of Dreamers — the young immigrants brought to the country years ago by undocumented parents — livable wages for Utah workers, background checks for gun purchases and universal health care under a single-payer system.
Most of Eliason’s campaign cash is coming from his own wallet.
A self-described moderate, he has donated or loaned a total of $198,000 to his campaign to date, about 85 percent of the total he raised.
Eliason, 46, who has an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsyslvania, said he has been president or chief operating officer of several successful companies, such as the JJ Cole baby products firm, and is a major investor in others.
So he said he has the money to spend and wants to use it to try to change politics.
“It is the most impactful place I can put my money,” he said. “I look at it as an investment in the future of my kids if we can achieve some of our goals.”
He said he does not seek nor accept money from political action committees because he does not want to be beholden to the corporations and industries behind them — and says that could make him a more trusted voice.
“I come from a business background. Nobody gives money to campaigns without an expectation of returns,” he said. “So much money comes from people who are trying to influence outcomes. Rob Bishop is approaching $1 million that he’s raised, and so much of it is from oil and gas.”
Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and an eight-term member of the House, has raised nearly half of his money during this election cycle from PACs, about $413,000 out of $864,000, disclosure forms show.
Eliason has raised about $34,000 from donors besides himself, “which isn’t bad for a third party,” he said. One donor is more eye-catching than others: Greg Miller, former CEO of the Utah Jazz and a board member of the Larry Miller Companies, gave Eliason $2,500.
“I met him through some business dealings,” Eliason said.
He said he chose to run under the UUP banner “because I felt Rob Bishop needed a challenger, and I could keep the integrity of my politics with a moderate party” — but trying to survive Republican conventions and primaries in the district likely would require running too far to the right for any good chance of success.
“I see too many people trying to pander to a platform, and I don’t intend to do that,” he said. He adds that the UUP is “more about valuing the diversity of opinion to find solutions. … It is about being principled over being partisan.”
He said he is pushing for campaign-finance reform, lowering health-care costs “and finding common ground over a partisanship approach.” He also attacks Bishop’s usual strong support of President Donald Trump, calling him “the weakest in the delegation to protest when he crosses the line.”
Lack of true competition in recent years has made 1st District races “largely unobserved, except for political science professors," said Eliason. “I’m looking to change that. We want to make it interesting and have voters discuss and watch this race again.”