Utah’s 4th Congressional District race shaped up to be one of the most expensive in the state’s history, with new campaign finance disclosures showing the candidates combined had raised and then spent nearly $10 million.
Freshman Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams, who lost the race last month by a margin of 3,765 votes to Republican Burgess Owens, spent $5.3 million over the course of the campaign in an effort to keep his seat. Owens, a former NFL player and first-time political candidate who will take office early next year, spent $4.5 million.
The Center for Responsive Politics estimates that some $14 million in outside money flooded into the race, much of it from congressional party leadership political action committees (PACs).
Even without taking into consideration the huge wave of outside dollars that flowed into the race, “that’s a lot of money,” said Matthew Burbank, a political scientist at the University of Utah.
“For a congressional race and particularly a congressional race in Utah, those are really large numbers — not something we typically see,” he said. But big spending in the race wasn’t totally unexpected, he added, since the 4th District is “typically a very competitive election.”
Utah Republican Party Chairman Derek Brown said similarly that he couldn’t remember ever having seen a more expensive race in the state.
“We’ve never had a race that has probably been half as much,” he said. “I think it shows the importance that this race was on a national level.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch raised and spent more than $10 million in his last election, in 2012, over the course of his six-year term, although the bulk of the money was spent in the months leading up to the primary election that year.
The post-election campaign finance reports filed Thursday show McAdams — who was cleaning out his congressional office on Friday — won the fundraising race overall, bringing in $5.6 million from donors. But Burbank said he was impressed to see Owens had raised almost as much money, at $4.4 million, despite not having the advantage of incumbency.
Challengers generally struggle to raise money, but Owens’ disclosures show he brought in $4.1 million from individuals and $1.5 million from PACs — a fundraising strength the candidate had previously said was “a direct result of our message” in the campaign.
Brown said he thinks Owens’ campaign haul speaks to his strength as a candidate, “because I don’t know that anyone anticipated that a nonincumbent would be able to raise $4 million to $5 million and not just raise it but raise it in just a couple of months” after the June primary.
“McAdams, he raised $5 million, but he had two years to do it,” Brown added. “Before the cycle even started or anyone had filed to run on the Republican side, he already had several million dollars in the bank and there were multiple news stories talking about how he had this incredible advantage and how could anyone match this advantage?”
Prior to the primary election, McAdams had already amassed more than $2.2 million in campaign cash.
But while voters often think that money will translate into a win for a particular candidate, Burbank said the outcome of this race goes to show that isn’t always the case. In fact, he said the opposite is often true, since research shows a negative association with how much money a candidate spends and the percentage of the votes he or she receives.
“If you look, for example, at how much money [Rep.] Chris Stewart raised and spent, he is in a district that’s just less competitive than McAdams’, so he’s spending less money but he’s getting a higher proportion of the vote,” Burbank said. “For McAdams, he’s spending more money and is getting a lower percentage of the votes. That’s a pattern we see fairly commonly.”
Stewart, a Republican who won 59% of the vote in Utah’s 2nd Congressional District, had spent around $829,000 and raised nearly $879,500 in his race through Oct. 14. His opponent, Kael Weston, brought in nearly $344,800 and spent about $289,600 through Nov. 23.
Big fundraising advantages among Democratic candidates in Salt Lake County also failed to turn into wins on the County Council for Deborah Gatrell, Terri Tapp Hrechkosy and outgoing Councilwoman Shireen Ghorbani. All three were defeated by Republican newcomers: Dave Alvord, Dea Theodore and Laurie Stringham.
While McAdams’ fundraising and spending prowess didn’t equal a win in the 4th Congressional District, Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant said he thought outside money played an important factor in the race.
“Outside money over time just kind of drowns everything out,” he said. “I think you heard as well as I did by the end of the election cycle, people were done watching Ben McAdams and Burgess Owens ads. They weren’t particularly effective.”
Reflecting on the race, Merchant said he thinks high voter turnout was the ultimate factor that lost McAdams his seat — something he believes was affected by the pandemic, as he said Democrats generally were less willing than Republicans to go door to door or host any kind of campaign events.
That’s a problem because Democrats in Utah, he said, rely much more on “retail politics,” or one-on-one interactions with voters, than on “wholesale politics,” or reaching as many people as possible through mediums like television and radio.
“A big part of the Republican message, I mean this is what you got out of Burgess Owens and we’re still getting it from Burgess Owens, which is this fear of socialism, this fear of our country falling into disorder, this fear of ultra liberals taking over the world and all of that,” Merchant said. “That fear-based approach is certainly an easy and effective message on TV.”
The Democratic message, Merchant said, was more focused on a need to band together to weather the coronavirus pandemic and was “not as easy to portray over something like television.”
Many of the Democratic and PAC ads, however, attacked Owens over prior bankruptcies and his position on resumption of nuclear testing.
Burbank said he thought the pandemic, which completely upended the election cycle, hit candidates across parties equally hard. He acknowledged, though, that Democrats in Utah “are probably a little more reliant upon door-to-door contact right around election time” in order to drum up votes.
But Brown said he thinks the pandemic should have, if anything, given McAdams more of an incumbent advantage, with lockdowns and prohibitions on gatherings making it more difficult for a first-time candidate to break through.
“That’s why I think that it shows even another area of strength for Burgess Owens,” he said, “because if anybody had name recognition and a system in place that could overcome the challenge of a pandemic, it was Ben McAdams.”