GOP candidates for Utah governor are loaning themselves thousands — even millions — for the contest

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) From left to right, Jeff Burningham, Aimee Winder Newton, Spencer Cox, Jon Huntsman Jr., Greg Hughes and Thomas Wright stand on the stage during a debate for Utah's 2020 gubernatorial race Friday, Jan. 31, 2020, in Salt Lake City. Six candidates vying for the GOP nomination in the Utah governor's race meet for their first debate. The debate is part of the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit, a conference for the state's burgeoning tech sector.

Republicans jockeying to become Utah’s next governor are pouring their own money into the contest, and several of the candidates have written their campaigns six- or seven-figure checks.

Provo venture capitalist Jeff Burningham has loaned his campaign $2.1 million since January, while businesswoman Jan Garbett’s team has taken in more than $736,000 in loans from the candidate and her family’s company. Thomas Wright, former chairman of the Utah GOP, has loaned himself $300,000, according to campaign filings submitted Monday.

The competitors who are self-supporting their campaigns posted the highest fundraising numbers in the latest reporting period, which runs from Jan. 1 through April 15. Including the loans, Burningham raised roughly $2.5 million, Garbett about $759,000 and Wright $994,000, according to the filings.

Burningham, who has more than $2 million in his campaign account, said his personal wealth makes him the only outsider capable of taking on establishment candidates such as Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and former Gov. Jon Huntsman.

[Read more: Election 2020: Utah’s gubernatorial candidates and where they stand on the issues]

“I obviously don’t have a famous father or my name on stadiums or the power of incumbency,” Burningham said in an interview. “So I have to do everything I can to get my message out to Utah voters.”

But former House Speaker Greg Hughes, who brought in about $635,000 — more than $500,000 of which came from a political action committee that the former legislator opened in 2015 — disagreed with that sentiment, arguing that his campaign has seen a trajectory in the polls that can’t be explained by spending or fundraising alone.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“I just don’t think the Michael Bloomberg the-more-money-you-have, the-more-viable-you-are equation is accurate,” he said, referencing the failed Democratic presidential hopeful who far outraised his competitors. “I think our performance from when we began to where we are now shows we have more momentum than any other campaign and I don’t think that was an all by itself dollar equation. There’s a lot that goes into earning the support of Utahns.”

Of the remaining candidates, Cox led the pack with about $661,000 raised. Huntsman wasn’t far behind, collecting about $640,000 in contributions in the first few months of 2020, and Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton brought about $40,000 into her campaign coffers over the same period.

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On the Democratic side, Chris Peterson, a University of Utah law professor, reported donations of about $36,000, most of it from himself and family. Zachary Moses brought in a little under $13,000, also mostly from himself and family. And Neil Hansen reported contributions of $4,000, all from his family.

Democratic hopefuls Archie Williams, Ryan Jackson and Nikki Pino reported they had raised no campaign cash.

“We’re doing the best we can to raise the money necessary to compete, and we like our chances to secure the Democratic nomination,” Peterson said Tuesday.

Though he acknowledged he’d have a “steep uphill climb” against the Republican nominee, Peterson said he believes his message is resonating with Utah voters.

The high fundraising totals on the Republican side are unusual this early in the race, according to University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank. But he said they make sense, since candidates are scrabbling over a post left open by the departure of Gov. Gary Herbert.

“The incumbent governor tends to raise a lot of money, but nobody else really does because it’s always tough to challenge an incumbent,” he said.

Utah has not had an open governor’s seat since 1992.

The large personal donations from some candidates to their campaigns come at a time when other gubernatorial hopefuls are facing challenges in fundraising amid economic uncertainty due to the coronavirus. More than 82,000 Utahns have reported losing their jobs, being furloughed or seeing their pay cut as social distancing efforts have led to the closure of countless businesses and slowed the economy to a slumber.

Last month, as the coronavirus came to Utah, Cox began discouraging supporters from donating to his gubernatorial campaign and asked them instead to support neighbors who are missing paychecks, leave larger tips at a restaurant or help a health worker cover child care expenses.

In a statement Tuesday, Cox celebrated the 1,763 individual donors who have given to the campaign but noted that his team has “tightened its belt” in response to the pandemic.

“As governor, I will take the same fiscally conservative approach to ensure Utah has a balanced budget,” he said.

Winder Newton said her campaign has also slowed down on fundraising asks and has instead looked for creative ways to run the campaign on a shoestring budget — including filming a recent TV ad on an iPhone with a production crew of one. And as proof that she’s able to do more with less, the candidate points to recent polling that showed her nearly tied with Burningham, who has both outraised and outspent her many times over.

“I don’t have millions to loan my campaign myself like some of my opponents do — and we’re OK with that," she said. "We’re OK to do more with less. I think that shows people how I spend money when I’m in government office.”

Garbett, who’s among the candidates facing criticism for large personal loans to their campaigns, argued that the donations from herself and her family’s company are actually a positive and mean she’s less susceptible to outside influence.

“I don’t have ties to large corporations," she said. “I don’t have a long history of being a politician and having people wanting to contribute to me because they know that then they’ll have a listening ear [when it comes to] making policy or whatever. I feel like this actually frees me to represent the people.”

Several of the candidates have accepted massive donations from groups or individuals representing business interests. Wright’s campaign has pulled in contributions of $100,000 from the Utah Association of Realtors and $75,000 from Fred Lampropoulos, the CEO at Merit Medical Systems, who is his brother-in-law.

Utah-based Ocean Star International and developer and philanthropist Kem Gardner have each poured $100,000 into Huntsman’s campaign coffers. John and Heidi Pestana — John Pestana co-founded the software company ObservePoint — put a combined total of $200,000 toward Burningham’s bid. The entrepreneur also received $75,000 in support from, Jeff Danley, who co-founded Peak Capitol with Burningham.

Hughes pulled in $190,000 from current House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, $175,000 from former House Majority Leader Kevin Garn and $100,000 from Kem Gardner and his business.

While Cox’s campaign has touted his broad base of smaller donors, he’s also drawn some major contributors — Jazz owner Gail Miller; Crystal Maggelet, CEO of the company that owns Maverik; and Aaron Skonnard, co-founder and CEO of the online education company Pluralsight, are all among those who have contributed $50,000 to Cox’s bid so far.

Several of the candidates also got a financial assist from their running mates. Rep. Rob Bishop, who’s on Wright’s ticket, transferred $50,000 from his congressional campaign and chipped in another $30,000 of his own money. Utah Sen. Dan McCay, who’s running alongside Burningham, kicked in a $250,000 loan from his legislative campaign account, and Winder Newton got a boost of several thousand dollars from her running mate, state Auditor John Dougall.

As the candidates head toward the April 25 party convention, where they’ll try to win over delegates, Burningham has far and away the most money in the bank. With more than $2 million at his command, the entrepreneur expressed confidence that his rivals will be unable to match his fundraising.

“There is no one else who will be able to compete with Jon and Spencer,” he said. “Again, it’s a sad fact. I wish it weren’t the case, but you need money to compete in politics. They are not going to have enough money.”

Cox trails Burningham with about $703,000 in the bank, while Huntsman and Wright have roughly $336,000 and $222,000 respectively. Winder Newton has about $175,000 on hand, Hughes has roughly $164,000 and Garbett has about $58,000.

Editor’s note • Jon Huntsman is a brother of Paul Huntsman, chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors.