Spencer Cox, Sean Reyes report big fundraising advantage over their Democratic challengers

The scales are tipped in favor of Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who commands about 10 times the campaign cash of his opponent, Democrat Chris Peterson, in Utah’s governor’s race.

In the days before ballots begin to go out, Cox is reporting a bank balance of more than $500,000, while Peterson has about $52,000. The imbalance reflects the uphill climb Democrats have in pursuing statewide office. Republicans have held the governor’s mansion for nearly four decades.

But Peterson says he’s proud that most of his campaign funds come from small-dollar donations. Moneyed interests have particular power in Utah, he said, where there are no limits on campaign contributions.

“What that means is that very wealthy individuals or companies with business before the government can have an outsized influence on who gets to run advertisements on TV and billboards and online,” Peterson, a University of Utah law professor, said. “It’s especially critical for the public to do their homework about the best path forward for our state.”

Cox’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Peterson’s largest donation was $5,000 during the most recent campaign finance reporting period, from June 19 through Sept. 25, according to public disclosures filed this week. Overall, he raised about $69,000.

On the other hand, Cox raked in nearly $887,000 over the same time frame, accepting 22 donations of $10,000 or more. His biggest checks came from the Republican Governors Association, which contributed $200,000, and the Utah Association of Realtors political action committee, which gave $125,000.

The Cox campaign also received:

• $40,000 from the Republican State Leadership Committee.

• $35,000 from the Cache Valley Electric Co.

• $25,000 from Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller.

• $25,000 each from Brent Beesley, chairman and CEO of the St. George-based Heritage Bank, and his wife, Bonnie Jean Beesley, a former regent with the Utah Board of Higher Education.

• $25,000 from Dell Loy Hansen, the embattled owner of Real Salt Lake.

Damon Cann, a political science professor at Utah State University, noted that Cox portrayed himself as the biblical David as he faced off against former Gov. Jon Huntsman in the GOP primary.

“If Cox was David before, he’s Goliath now,” said Cann, who volunteered for Cox during the primary but said he hasn’t engaged with the campaign during the general election.

Cox’s cash advantage isn’t surprising, said Matthew Burbank, a University of Utah political science professor. Because the state leans right, donating to a Republican candidate can seem like a wise investment to donors who are hoping to influence future public policy.

“That makes it much harder for a Democratic challenger in the state of Utah to raise money,” Burbank said.

The newly released campaign finance records also illuminate the flood of spending in the final days of the GOP primary, which Cox won by a narrow margin over Huntsman, with former House Speaker Greg Hughes and former Utah Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright finishing in third and fourth place.

Huntsman spent more than $1.5 million during the final days of his primary campaign and in the election, buoyed by a $1.375 million infusion from his mother, Karen Huntsman.

Cox spent about $924,000 during the most recent reporting period from mid-June to late September. The Hughes campaign recorded about $354,000 in spending to wrap up the primary, while Wright’s expenses totaled about $154,000.

The four Republican candidates together spent more than $9.5 million during the governor’s race.

Attorney general’s race

In Utah’s attorney general race, campaign finance reports show Republican incumbent Attorney General Sean Reyes has a big fundraising advantage over his opponent, Democratic nominee Greg Skordas.

Reyes has raised more than $171,500 since mid-July and a total of $635,000 this year. Skordas also brought in a sizable amount this campaign reporting period at nearly $108,000. For the full campaign, he’s raised $284,000.

Heading into the general election, though, Skordas does appear to have a leg up in available cash with $197,000, while Reyes reports just $22,000 leftover in unspent funds.

Skordas said in an interview Thursday that he’s “enthused about where we are."

In this past period, Reyes’ largest donations were $10,000.

Among those large donors were Curt Richardson, a Colorado millionaire whose net worth is estimated at $650 million; Todd Pedersen, CEO and founder of Vivint Smart Home; and Trevor Milton, the founder of the hydrogen and electric vehicle startup Nikola Motor Co., who abruptly resigned as chairman last month amid fraud and sexual assault allegations.

Reyes' campaign did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Skordas, who has been a public defender, a prosecutor and private defense attorney, received one $10,000 donation, from Chad Shumway, a friend of his who lives in Mapleton.

Skordas’ biggest source of money has been himself, with at least $100,000 of his total contributions coming from his own bank account.

Campaign finance has played a central issue in the attorney general’s race, which Skordas has said he decided to enter because he was frustrated by Reyes' actions around Washakie Renewable Resources.

Five of its principals — most with ties to the Kingston polygamist group — were found guilty on federal charges in a fraud scheme involving $1.1 billion from a government biofuel program.

In 2016, after federal agents raided Washakie’s offices, Reyes' political consultant, Alan Crooks, said the campaign would put the $51,000 it had received in contributions from the company in escrow, where it would remain pending the outcome of the investigation. In 2018, Crooks reiterated that the money was still in escrow. But last December, the campaign’s website said that by the time it was contacted in 2016, the money had been spent and no refund would be made.

Reyes has also been criticized for taking donations from industries ranging from high-interest lenders to opioid manufacturers and tobacco companies. Crooks has said that Reyes accepts money from such industries because the good players in them want to weed out bad actors and argues that if the candidate refused to accept money from anyone who has faced any controversy, few donors would remain.

Skordas, in an interview Thursday, reiterated his criticisms of Reyes' campaign donations.

“And nobody seems to care. I can stand on top of a building and say, ‘The attorney general’s for sale' and people say, ‘So what? It’s always been that way, or at least it’s been that way for 20 years,’" he said. "To me, it’s troubling. To me, it’s disconcerting. It’s immoral. But it’s campaign financing in Utah.”

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