Republicans cry foul over misleading campaign mailers from Democrats

(Screengrab) Mailer from the Utah Democratic Party attacking Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, by implying he voted to raise the food tax when, in fact, he voted against it.

Is guilt by association enough to flip some legislative seats held by vulnerable Republican incumbents in November? Utah Democrats seem to think so, and they’re playing hardball.

The Utah Democratic Party sent out mailers hammering several vulnerable Republican legislative incumbents over the failed tax reform effort, even though many of them voted against the bill.

The mailers play a cute rhetorical trick. Instead of attacking the lawmakers for supporting the tax reform effort, they say their caucus voted to raise taxes. That’s an important distinction that seemingly the mailers hope voters aren’t able to make.

“It’s garbage,” said Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, who voted against the tax reform package. “It’s an ambush perfectly timed with ballots in the mailbox, which limits my ability to tell the truth to voters.”

Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, who also voted against the tax bill, called the last-minute mailers “dirty despicable deceptions.”

“My area knows I listened to them on tax reform and voted against raising sales tax on food, but this just gives us a reason to reinforce that message,” said Winder.

“There’s not one inaccurate statement in any of those mailers,” Utah Democratic Party Chair Jeff Merchant said in defense of the hard-nosed mailers.

Well, maybe.

It is true that the tax reform package, which would have raised the state sales tax on food, passed the Legislature in December of 2019 with nary a Democratic vote. That part of the mailer is true. But, the copy and paste claim in all of the mailers that the candidates “did nothing to stop” the bill is up for debate, as much of the discussion among Republicans was held behind closed doors during their caucus meetings.

The mailers also claim the bill was “overturned by voters.” That is not technically true, as legislators repealed the measure in January after a proposed referendum showed widespread public support and obtained enough signatures to put the issue on the November ballot. The repeal made that referendum a moot point.

“This is no different than the perfectly acceptable argument the Republicans make against Democratic House candidates saying they are going to be Nancy Pelosi’s lapdog,” said Merchant. “I guess it’s OK for them to engage in guilt by association, but when Democrats point out the same thing on the Republican side, then we’re being negative and bad.”

Adding to the political pile-on is a digital campaign from the left-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah. The advocacy group is hitting many of the same lawmakers with social media ads that use similar language. But ABU executive director Chase Thomas says that’s just a coincidence.

Alliance for a Better Utah digital ad attacking Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City

“I don’t know why it’s similar to what the Democratic Party is using,” said Thomas. “We believe we need to have a more progressive Legislature to be able to reflect policies that voters in Utah want.”

But, instead of going after those more conservative members, they’re targeting many of the more centrist members of the GOP caucus who are vulnerable to an election flip.

“If we go and attack conservative members like Phil Lyman, it’s not going to make as much of an impact as it would in these districts where we know there are a lot of progressive voters. These Republicans are following the conservative supermajority on most issues,” said Thomas.

The last-minute attacks are not sitting well with some Democrats. One Democratic campaign manager worried on social media that the move would turn off voters.

“How dare you come into my races the last 3 weeks and jeopardize the work we’ve been doing,” Natalie Desiree tweeted, urging readers to “tell Jeff Merchant to stop sending dirty mailers.”

Eliason said he’s afraid voters won’t make the distinction between his vote against the tax reform measure and the other legislative Republicans.

“Where do I go to get my reputation back?” said Eliason. “Now I’m forced to spend thousands of dollars to try and counteract this.”

Eliason he plans to use a video from former Gov. Jon Huntsman, who was responsible for ditching the state’s part of the food tax initially, praising Eliason for being against putting that tax back on food. He also is preparing to send mailers about the issue to voters. But, with ballots already hitting mailboxes, he’s afraid the damage may already be done.