Mike Lee and Evan McMullin’s U.S. Senate race is likely Utah’s most expensive political contest ever

Lee, McMullin and outside groups have spent more than $30 million on Utah’s U.S. Senate race during this midterm election.

The contest between Republican Mike Lee and independent Evan McMullin is likely the most expensive race in Utah history. The two campaigns have raised more than $18.3 million in total and spent more than $15.5 million. Outside groups have added nearly $15.8 million in support or opposition.

Those numbers eclipsed the 2012 U.S. Senate race, where Republican Orrin Hatch raised $11.5 million while spending $13.1 million. His primary and general election opponents did not cross the $1 million threshold in contributions or spending. In 2018, Mitt Romney raised $5.5 million and spent $5.2 million.

During his first reelection race in 2016, Lee raised just over $5.8 million and spent slightly more than $5.5 million. Misty Snow, his Democratic opponent that year, raised just $76,000 and spent $35,000. Lee won by 40 points. Lee raised $1.7 million during his first run for Senate in 2010.

The money coursing through the Lee versus McMullin contest also outpaces the 2020 Utah gubernatorial race, which saw 8 Republican candidates raise and spend about $15 million, with the majority of that going toward the race for the GOP nomination.

According to Federal Election Commission financial disclosures, Lee has raised more than $11.1 million as of Tuesday, while McMullin has reeled in around $7.2 million.

The two campaigns are nearly even in the amount of money they have raised from individual donors. Lee’s cash advantage is primarily due to just under $2 million in donations from political action committees and another $1.3 million from other Republican officeholders and candidates. McMullin has not received any contributions from PACs.

Most of the individual donations to both campaigns came from Utah, but more of McMullin’s donations in both dollars and number of contributions were from the Beehive State. Just over a third of the dollars McMullin has raised so far — 35 percent — came from Utah, while over half of the total number of donations where donor information is available — 58 percent — are from Utah.

Lee raised 24 percent of his individual dollars from Utah from 33 percent of his total donations. Lee pulled in another 17 percent of his contributions from Texas, while just under 17 percent of McMullin’s dollars came from donors in California.

How are they spending that cash?

Both campaigns have spent heavily on TV advertising, which makes sense since Utah voters can’t turn on the TV without being overwhelmed by commercials for this race.

Lee has spent more than 2.3 million on ads overall, including 1.9 million since the June primary. McMullin’s camp has dropped $2.1 million on television advertising, most of that coming since July.

Lee has spent heavily on digital advertising, putting more than $356,000 toward online ads and nearly $812,000 for “digital consulting.” McMullin spent just under $900,000 on “digital email consulting.”

Polling has cost Lee’s campaign nearly $600,000, with almost $200,000 of that total coming in September and October. McMullin’s team has spent $327,000 on surveys, most of that also in the last two months.

As the hackneyed phrase goes, “You have to spend money to make money.” That’s true for both Lee and McMullin, who threw big bucks at fundraising. Lee spent $644,000 on fundraising consulting, another $229,000 on telemarketing and $295,000 on direct mail fundraising. McMullin reported spending nearly $500,000 on fundraising consulting.

Lee spent a surprising $432,000 to secure his spot on the primary ballot, paying a signature-gathering company to collect the 28,000 signatures he needed. That works out to about $15 per signature.

Outside groups

Super PACs have boosted the avalanche of television ads and mailers competing for voters’ attention, throwing more than $15 million in spending into the race.

The two biggest spenders are super PACs Club for Growth Action, which is backing Lee, and the Put Utah First PAC, which is behind McMullin. Put Utah First has spent more than $4.8 million on the race, almost all of it to oppose Lee, while Club for Growth Action has spent $4.3 million.

FEC rules do not allow campaigns and super PACs to coordinate, but there is a connection between Lee’s campaign and the Liberty Champions super PAC, which has spent more than $1.6 million attacking McMullin. Thomas Datwyler serves as the treasurer for both Lee’s campaign and Liberty Champions.

While having the same person handle the finances for both a campaign and a super PAC might raise eyebrows, it is not against the rules.

“An individual can be a treasurer for both authorized campaign committees and super PACs without running afoul of the coordination prohibition,” Saurav Ghosh, Director for Federal Reform at Campaign Legal Center, explained.

Datwyler has served as treasurer for political action committees that have supported politicians ranging from Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene to outgoing Rep. Madison Cawthorn.

“Thomas Datwyler, in particular, is a professional treasurer and, according to the FEC website, currently serves as treasurer for 118 super PACs and 126 authorized committees and joint fundraising committees,” Ghosh added.

One of the PACs connected to Datwyler, 1820 PAC, reportedly is under federal investigation for a scheme to funnel illegal campaign donations to Republican Sen. Susan Collins’ 2020 reelection bid. Axios reported last year the FBI believes a Hawaii defense contractor used a shell company to funnel $150,000 in donations to a pro-Collins super PAC and reimbursed contributions to Collins’ campaign.

Earlier this month, the campaign committee for Republican Rep. Jim Hagedorn refunded him more than $1,100 for mileage even though Hagedorn died in February. Datwyler is listed as the treasurer for that committee. Insider reported that it is unclear who received that money.

Datwyler did not respond to requests for comment.

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