Utah’s four Republican candidates for governor have together spent more than $6.5 million, and most of them have powered their campaigns with whopping cash infusions from political allies, special interests and their personal or family fortunes.
This is the first time since 1992 that the Utah governor’s seat has been open. And campaign finance reports released Tuesday night reveal that the finalists in the hotly contested primary race have all spent in excess of $1 million in their quest to replace outgoing Gov. Gary Herbert, the nation’s longest-serving governor.
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and former Gov. Jon Huntsman, who are neck-and-neck in the polls, have each shelled out around $2 million as they try to win over voters in the June 30 primary.
“That’s an expensive governor’s race for Utah,” said David Magleby, a political science professor emeritus at Brigham Young University.
To fuel this spending spree, big donors around the state have been writing five- and six-figure checks to the campaigns of their preferred candidate. Utah House Rep. Mike Schultz has poured $440,000 into the coffers of former House Speaker Greg Hughes. Merit Medical founder Fred Lampropoulos has funneled $230,000 toward his brother-in-law, former state GOP Chairman Thomas Wright.
Utah sets no limits on campaign donations.
Herbert’s biggest donations from 2016 look paltry by comparison — his largest haul from any one person or company was $55,000.
Entering the primary race home stretch, Cox has by far the most funds, with about $514,000 in his campaign account as of last week, according to a new finance report that covers April 16 through June 18. On the other hand, Huntsman, his chief rival, only has about $62,000 remaining after the last few months of heavy spending, the reports show.
Hughes has about $337,000 in his bank account, but only after loaning himself nearly $360,000, while Wright has about $47,000 in campaign funding.
The money gap between Huntsman and Cox could be particularly significant, Magleby said.
“[Huntsman] is at a big disadvantage in the last few days of the race,” he said. “Because a lot of people are probably still trying to decide between the two.”
The Cox campaign has boasted of its grassroots support during the race, and his campaign finance reports seem to bear that out, showing hundreds of small-dollar contributions from across the state. More than 2,700 individual donors have pumped money into his gubernatorial bid, about quadruple the number of contributors to Huntsman’s campaign.
“Despite running against candidates with unlimited personal wealth, our campaign has been an unprecedented grassroots movement from the beginning,” said Heather Barney, campaign spokeswoman, “consisting of teachers, farmers, small business owners and everyday Utahns.”
However, he does have his share of large donors, receiving $82,500 from the Republican State Leadership Committee, a group that helps elect GOP candidates to state positions. Cox, who has called education the top issue of his campaign, has also accepted $75,000 from the National Education Association, a point of criticism from some of his GOP rivals.
Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller was among the prominent business representatives who wrote large checks to Cox, along with $60,000 from Alan Ashton, co-founder of WordPerfect Corp., and more than $55,000 from the Clyde Companies, a construction company which owns gravel mining operations in the state and does millions of dollars of work on state contracts.
A Utah-based private prison company, Management and Training Corp., put more than $40,000 into Cox’s bid.
Though Cox in March discouraged his supporters from putting money into his campaign — saying the cash was better spent helping the community weather the pandemic — it appears they didn’t listen. Records show his fundraising actually sped up during the past couple months, as the state battled COVID-19.
And as the primary race winds down, Cox’s significant remaining cash pile could give him a sizable advantage by fueling last-ditch efforts to target voters, said Magleby.
“I think he is running a sophisticated campaign, and my hunch is that the Cox campaign will have a highly developed voter identification and mobilization effort,” he said. “And that’s not cheap.”
Huntsman had nearly emptied out his campaign coffers by the time the recent campaign finance reports were due. Despite that, a spokeswoman for the campaign said they’re happy with their “ability to reach voters and engage them in the process” and are using their resources as best they can to win the primary.
Magleby said he’s surprised the former governor’s account is so bare going into the final burst of the primary race. But given the Huntsman family’s vast wealth, the candidate has ready access to funds whenever he needs it, the professor added.
“A family with the resources that the Huntsman family has can erase that deficit with one check,” he said.
Sure enough, the Huntsman family matriarch, Karen Huntsman, has already written her son a staggering $300,000 in checks, and Huntsman’s brother has chipped in another $50,000, according to campaign finance records.
The former U.S. ambassador to China and Russia has benefited from his diplomatic ties. His campaign got a $50,000 donation from C. Boyden Gray, who served as ambassador to the European Union under President George W. Bush and sits on the board of directors for the Atlantic Council, an international affairs think tank that Huntsman once led. And Howard Leach, former American ambassador to France, contributed $25,000, records show.
Ocean Star International, a Snowville-based company that produces food for fish and brine shrimp hatcheries, also ranks as one of Huntsman’s largest donors, channeling $100,000 toward his campaign.
Just four people account for about 80% of the funds Hughes has raised so far during his bid for governor.
And one of those is Hughes himself. In the last couple weeks, the candidate has subsidized his own campaign with personal loans totaling $358,500, newly released campaign reports show.
But even that jaw-dropping amount doesn’t make Hughes the largest contributor to his campaign. That distinction belongs to his former legislative colleague, Schultz, who has dumped $440,000 into Hughes’ political committees over the last two years.
His bid got another $275,000 from Kevin Garn, the former Utah House majority leader who resigned under a cloud in 2010 after admitting to a nude hot-tubbing incident with a minor 25 years earlier.
A year after Garn stepped down, he and Hughes formed a company together to construct an apartment, a relationship that ultimately sparked a conflict-of-interest controversy related to Utah Transit Authority contracts, but which they said was a matter of paperwork because they never did any projects together.
In Utah, Magleby notes, well-heeled donors don’t have to resort to super PACs to dodge campaign contribution limits and can give as much as they want directly to the candidate of their choice. And he wonders where Hughes would be without the massive investments from Schultz and Garn.
“When you have a donor that is that prominent in funding a race, it raises the question of, what is their agenda?” Magleby said. “And the answer is, I don’t know.”
In a phone interview, Schultz said he has no agenda except to elect a governor who “stands up for the little guy.”
Schultz said he admired Hughes’ leadership in Operation Rio Grande, a $67 million project to crack down on lawlessness and improve the Pioneer Park area. The former House speaker also helped broker a deal on allowing medical marijuana in the state, he noted.
“I just think that’s who we need leading the state,” he said. “I’ve seen him stand up to the big corporate interests over and over again, and I was impressed by him.”
A statement provided by Hughes’ spokesman says that coronavirus has made campaigning more expensive, and the economic shutdown created challenges for fundraising. Over the course of the primary race, the campaign hasn’t had a single fundraising event, he added.
“Greg is fortunate to have friends who believe in him and his vision for the state,” spokesman Greg Hartley said. “These donations allowed us to spend our time campaigning.”
During the race, Wright has raised the least of the four primary contenders and had the least money in his bank account as of last week. That’s despite loaning himself $300,000 when he initially jumped into the race and large injections of cash from his running mate, U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop.
The retiring congressman plowed $220,000 from his House campaign committee into Wright’s bid, the finance records show.
Wright, president and principal broker of Summit Sotheby’s International Realty, has also gotten ample support from the real estate community, taking in nearly $108,000 from the Utah Association of Realtors and $72,500 from the National Association of Realtors. A variety of other individual real estate agents and groups have backed him financially, as well.
Utahns, he says, should view those donations as a “vote of confidence” from those who know him best. However, he does believe voters should pay attention to the special interests who have poured money into the campaigns of his opponents, all of whom have spent years in elected positions.
“The longer politicians are there, the more alliances they form, and the less ability they have to look at problems and solve problems through the eyes of citizens,” said Wright, who has never held elected office. “I do think those donations add a layer of complication.”
Editor’s note: Jon Huntsman is the brother of Paul Huntsman, chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors.