Salt Lake County election results show the limits of campaign spending

While Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson continues to appear secure in her reelection, the races for two County Council districts remained close the morning after Election Day — too close to say whether Democrats still have a shot at tipping the council majority in their favor.

County Clerk Sherrie Swensen on Wednesday morning estimated there are something like 200,000 ballots to be counted. If correct, Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs, the Republican challenger in the mayor’s race, would need to pick up some 61% of the remaining votes to close the gap.

Down the ballot, tight races in the two races for open council seats reveal the limits of campaign fundraising. In District 2, Democrat Deborah Gatrell outraised her opponent David Alvord, a Republican, by nearly four to one. But the most recent election results posted Wednesday afternoon showed Gatrell trailing Alvord by 9 percentage points.

Meanwhile, in District 6, Democratic candidate Terri Tapp Hrechkosy built a campaign war chest more than six times larger than her Republican opponent, Dea Theodore, but Theodore widened her narrow lead overnight. The race stands at 52.3% for the Republican versus 47.6% for the Democrat.

“There is an image out there sometimes that if someone just had enough money they could win any political race they wanted to win. That’s really not true,” said Damon Cann, a political science professor at Utah State University.

Democrats have not held a Salt Lake County Council majority in a decade. But the party saw an opening this election when Republican Michael Jensen decided not to seek reelection in District 2, and when Theodore unseated council Chair Max Burdick in the Republican Primary for District 6.

Campaigning on a smaller district level can be tricky. Taking out an ad in a newspaper or television station costs the same for a county council hopeful as it does for county mayor, even though the council candidate is targeting a much smaller pool of voters.

“The district doesn’t line up perfectly with the dissemination of information,” Cann said. “There’s not a neat, easy linear relationship between dollars spent and votes earned.”

Instead, those seeking local office tend to use smaller, targeted messaging. Case in point, in the weeks leading up to the election, Gatrell’s campaign spent $1,800 on targeted text messaging, $1,800 on Facebook ads, $3,000 on Google ads, nearly $10,000 on postage and printing and only $600 went to Digital First Media, likely for an ad in the newspapers or online.

Over the same reporting period, Alvord’s campaign spent nearly $11,000 on mailed postcards, $1,100 on a single newspaper insert and about $200 on Facebook advertising.

Although Democratic candidates for the council managed to bring in $256,158 to Republicans' $48,936, Cann said campaign spending tends to have diminishing returns over time.

“Being particularly well funded will really help a candidate to get off the ground and make their case, but once you hit a certain point, seeing one more newspaper ad or hearing one more jingle on the radio ... aren’t necessarily going to change more voters' minds,” Cann said. “Saturation can even overwhelm voters.”

The Democrats likely need at least one of the candidates from District 2 or District 6 to flip the County Council. Both the Gatrell and Hrechkosy campaigns said they’re waiting for the county clerk to count outstanding ballots and expressed optimism over the tight margins in districts long held by the GOP.

“We’ve always been really cautious about this race,” said Hrechkosy, reached by phone. “We know it’s been traditionally held by a Republican, but we’ve done a lot of work in this area, we’re very happy with what the campaign did, the number of people we reached.”

The Salt Lake County Democratic Party, too, expressed optimism about the race. Chair Emily Hase pointed to strong results for Wilson in the mayor’s race, who currently holds a 12.5 point lead over Republican Trent Staggs. Has also noted that other countywide races were ahead, although leads for first-term council member Shireen Ghorbani and Recorder Rashelle Hobbs shrank slightly, with margins of 4 and 6 points ahead of their GOP challengers, respectively.

In addition, Democrat Jennifer Fresques leads Republican Chris Stavros 51.5% to 48.5% for county assessor and the race for treasurer remains neck-and-neck between GOP incumbent K. Wayne Cushing and Democrat Michael McDonald.

“Salt Lake County is a purple-turning-blue county,” Hase said. “We’re very excited about the results last night.”

In an interview on election night, Wilson said she plans to continue prioritizing the county’s pandemic response in 2021. But she also intends to keep her focus on environmental issues. She formed an Office of Environmental Services in 2019 to address air quality and indicated she will dedicate more funding to the effort.

“This was a tough budget year,” Wilson said, “but that is a priority, to make sure we’re doing everything we can to support cleaner air.”

Wilson also said she will make housing affordability and smart growth in the Salt Lake Valley priorities.

The two GOP candidates ahead in the County Council race have also said planning for growth and the accompanying congestion are among their top issues, but Wilson could run into trouble when it comes to the county budget. Both Alvord and Theodore have criticized the current administration on its spending and last year’s 7.8% property tax hike.

In brief statements, the two candidates expressed confidence that they’ll secure council seats.

“I’m encouraged by the results!” Alvord said in a text message. “Looking forward to serving the people of Salt Lake County.”

Scott Miller, chair of the Salt Lake County Republicans, said his party will be closely scrutinizing spending, including the mayor’s administrative budget.

“I would like to see a full review of the financials and that they’re being the most effective with our tax dollars as possible,” Miller said.

He also praised the County Council candidates' campaign strategies, especially since they operated on shoestring budgets.

“I’m really thrilled they addressed issues that affect all people in Salt Lake County,” Miller said. “I think that because they are candidates who ran their elections that way, based on the issues that affect all people, whether Republican or Democrat, that’s why they retained [Republican] seats.”

Cann, the political science professor, said the strong Democratic showing for countywide seats combined with Republicans' possible continued control of the County Council could indicate voters' preference for divided government.

“[It could be to] encourage elected officials to work to find consensus rather than a wholesale partisan route,” Cann said.

On the other hand, the results may be a trickle-down effect of the much bigger presidential and congressional elections. Voters turned out at record numbers but Democrats nationwide fell short of the enthusiastic blue wave they had hoped for.

“It’s a tough place to be on the bottom half of the ballot. By the time people get to those races they’re not as engaged or interested as the national level,” Cann said. “The outcome of those [local] elections are more likely to affect day-to-day lives, but I think national forces can influence these races."