Of Utah’s 90 races for the Legislature this year, only 19 are even moderately competitive in campaign fundraising. The others are financial blowouts, suggesting most races are not close with voters either, an analysis of disclosure forms shows.
“Those donations are symptomatic of the larger challenge the state faces in terms of having a vibrant electoral democracy. Competitive elections are a way to hold politicians accountable, and too many are not competitive,” said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.
The fundraising overview suggests that little change is likely in the lopsided balance of power in the state Legislature — where Republicans hold supermajorities of 24-5 in the Senate and 62-13 in the House.
But some notable surprises are popping up that suggest trouble for a few incumbents or favorites in open-seat races. They include:
• Two other incumbents also were outraised by their challengers: Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, in Senate District 12, and Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, in House District 26.
Gaps in fundraising
An analysis of financial disclosure forms by The Salt Lake Tribune shows that most incumbents are thumping challengers in fundraising.
In the 68 races where an incumbent is running (not counting new Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, who was appointed just this week), they raised an average of $23,995 each compared with challengers’ average of $6,119 — only a quarter of their rivals.
Often the gap is much wider. For example, House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, raised a hefty $54,867. His Democratic opponent, Rich Miller, reported raising $80 — or $1 for every $686 that Wilson piled up.
In 22 open races where no incumbent is running, candidates raised an average of $22,469 each. Still, only seven of those races are competitive financially. Most are runaways where, for example, a Republican in a GOP district or a Democrat in a Democratic district attracts the lion’s share of the money.
Karpowitz said years of research nationally show that incumbents tend to rake in the most money because they have proved they can win races — and hold power now — so big donors view giving to them as a safer bet. Challengers are more of a risk.
“Electability is an important factor for donors,” he said — and incumbents or open-seat nominees such as Republicans in a heavily Republican district have that.
“In a state that leans heavily to one party, in our case Republicans, you are going to get some races that are not competitive,” Karpowitz notes.
The situation has resulted in only 19 of Utah’s 90 legislative races being competitive financially — defined in this analysis as a candidate raising at least two-thirds the amount of a money leader, or at least $20,000.
When few elections are competitive, Karpowitz said, “that makes it harder to hold politicians accountable."
Changing that could take years or decades, he adds, as Utah demographics change — as more outsiders move in — or boundaries are redrawn to make districts more competitive.
Controversial Phil Lyman
One of the surprises on the campaign fundraising landscape is Marsha Holland, who is not affiliated with any party, far outdistancing Republican Phil Lyman: $43,641 to $9,945.
“Everyone has a tale about Phil Lyman down here, and it’s usually not a good one,” Holland, a tour-guide operator residing in Tropic, Garfield County, said of her impressive fundraising. “I mean, he is a criminal and is still on probation. I’m standing for honesty and integrity.”
Lyman was convicted of a misdemeanor for leading a 2014 protest ride onto protected federal lands, making him a heroic anti-federal voice for many Republicans in a heavily GOP district that covers San Juan, Kane, Wayne, Garfield, Piute and parts of Beaver and Sevier counties.
“She does what is good for her campaign, and I do what is good for mine,” Lyman said in a voicemail left for The Tribune in response to a question about fundraising.
West Jordan fight
Rep. Cheryl Acton, R-West Jordan, was appointed last year to replace then-Rep. Adam Gardiner, who resigned to become Salt Lake County recorder. Facing her first general election, she has raised $14,282.
But Democrat Diane Lewis amassed much more: $44,711. Lewis is business manager of a construction trades union and has taken in $31,466 from unions.
"I don’t know how she can spend all of that. Our district isn’t that big geographically,” Acton said, adding she has plenty of money to run her campaign. She notes that Republicans have controlled her House seat as long as she can remember.
Lewis said she needs the money to overcome Republican and incumbent advantages.
She ran four years ago for that House seat unsuccessfully. “I learned that I need to do more to get my name out there.” She figures she has a better chance this year with a newly appointed incumbent, who may not be well known yet.
A Republican trailing in Provo?
GOP Rep. Norm Thurston’s Provo district may be among the most Republican areas in a very Republican county in a red state. But he trails 2-to-1 in fundraising.
United Utah Party candidate Hal Miller, a former Provo City Council member, raised $19,005 to Thurston’s $10,653. Democrat Daniel Friend trails with $5,951.
But almost all of Miller’s money came from personal funds: $18,355.
“I need to spend more because this is a heavily Republican district. I have to do that to have a chance,” Miller said. Also, he is trying to build awareness for his new middle-of-the-road party “and I am putting its name and logo everywhere I can to let people know there is an alternative.”
Thurston said he is taking Miller’s challenge seriously, but “ultimately I feel I will win because my message appeals to people and their values in my district.” He said he is campaigning hard.
Potentially hurting Thurston is that this year he was removed as vice chairman of the House Government Operations Committee and taken off the House Health and Human Services Committee after he had been admonished by House leaders for inappropriate behavior toward women. Thurston, of note, also wrote Utah’s new toughest-in-the-nation drunken driving law that lowers the allowed blood alcohol content from 0.08 to 0.05.
Other incumbents behind in fundraising
Two-term Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, is the state’s only incumbent senator who is trailing a challenger in fundraising. Democrat Clare Collard raised $41,184 to Thatcher’s $35,401.
Thatcher said that should not be surprising, adding that his is the only GOP-held Senate seat where Democrats outnumber Republicans. “But the party label doesn’t really matter to people in my district. They vote for people who listen to them and solve problems, and I do that.”
Collard did not return calls seeking comment. She also ran against Thatcher in 2014. Thatcher won that race 56 percent to 44 percent.
Three-term Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, was outraised by Republican Man Hung, $7,980 to $7,198.
“It’s less about dollars than connection to the community,” Romero said, adding she has developed a good relationship through years of service. She notes most of her donations come from district residents. “People want someone who will be a voice for the district and stand up for their concerns.”
Hung did not return calls seeking comment.
Other competitive races to watch
Fundraising totals suggest that several other races are close or competitive. Some that are perhaps the closest include:
Also, House District 34 in Murray between Democratic Rep. Karen Kwan and Republican David Young; House District 36 in Millcreek between Democratic Rep. Patrice Arent and Republican Todd Zenger; House District 49 in Sandy between GOP Rep. Robert Spendlove and Democrat Anthony Sudweeks; House District 53 in Summit/Morgan counties between GOP Rep. Logan Wilde and Democrat Christopher Neville.