In the weeks leading up to Election Day, Utahns haven’t been able to go to the gym, drive to their favorite dirty soda shop or scroll through social media without encountering negative ads about their state’s U.S. Senate race.
The ads call Senate candidates Mike Lee, a Republican, and Evan McMullin, an independent, names like “deadbeat,” “liar” and “crooked.” In what is likely the most expensive race the Beehive State has ever seen, voters have had to navigate more ads, from more sources, than ever before.
But why do the super PACs paying for these ads, many funded by out-of-state donors, care who represents Utah in Washington? And who’s writing the checks?
The Salt Lake Tribune dug into the latest filings with the Federal Election Commission to see who funding the super PACs that are spending millions supporting, and opposing, Lee and McMullin.
Club for Growth Action
Candidate the PAC supports: Mike Lee
Money spent so far on the race, as of Nov. 4: $5,467,675.66
What to know: Club for Growth Action is the expenditure-only political action committee, or super PAC, of Club for Growth, an organization advocating for conservative economic policy. McMullin is suing the super PAC for a doctored ad that makes it appear as if he said “the Republican base is racist — these bigots” during an appearance on CNN. It has recruited former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to endorse Lee in its TV ads. On Club for Growth Action’s website, Lee endorses the super PAC, saying, “What Club for Growth Action does is to help candidates, conservative candidates, get an edge that they might not otherwise have.”
Other candidates Club for Growth Action is backing:
Republican Ted Budd in the North Carolina U.S. Senate Race
Republican Adam Laxalt in the Nevada U.S. Senate race
Republican Blake Masters in the Arizona U.S. Senate race
Republican Rand Paul in the Kentucky U.S. Senate race
Republican Ron DeSantis in the Florida gubernatorial race
Richard Uihlein is the founder of shipping company Uline and a conservative megadonor. So far this year, he has donated nearly $25 million to Club for Growth Action. Public radio station WBEZ in Chicago reported that the Illinois billionaire was one of the primary contributors for Tea Party Patriots, one of the groups listed as having participated in the “March to Save America” rally ahead of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. He has given millions to anti-union, anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ rights efforts.
Jeff Yass is an options trader who sits on the board of directors of the libertarian think tank the Cato Institute. A ProPublica investigation published earlier this year found that he has avoided $1 billion in taxes, then directed that money at conservative political causes. Yass’ doesn’t just seek to influence U.S. politics with his money, he has also funded Israeli right-wing political movements. Yass has so far this year given $14 million to Club for Growth Action.
Robert Bigelow owns the hotel chain Budget Suites of America and is the founder of Bigelow Aerospace. He’s made his largest contributions this election cycle and topped Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ contributors’ list earlier this year with a $10 million donation. Club for Growth Action received $2 million from Bigelow. Beyond his political donations, Bigelow also funds research into life after death and investigations of the existence of UFOs, and was a previous owner of Utah’s Skinwalker Ranch.
Other things to note: Crypto Freedom PAC, a super PAC affiliated with Club for Growth Action, has also become a top spender in this race — so far, its spending has totaled $3,327,094.05. Yass is one of the super PAC’s primary donors.
Put Utah First PAC
Candidate the PAC supports: Evan McMullin
Money spent on the race so far, as of Nov. 4: $4,948,527.50
What to know: This super PAC was organized just two weeks after McMullin announced his Senate run in October 2021. The treasurer of the committee is Bob Worsley, a former Arizona Republican state lawmaker and the founder and CEO of SkyMall — best known for its now-defunct in-flight catalog. When he joined the Arizona Legislature in 2012, he defeated an anti-immigration candidate in the primary election, and crossed party lines on immigration-related votes and to approve Medicaid expansion. Put Utah First’s ads have run on TV, shown up in mailboxes and on news organizations’ websites.
Blake Murray is the founder and CEO of Utah-based Divvy, a business budgeting software company. He has donated $3 million to the super PAC. In a post on LinkedIn, Murray said he was hosting a lunch on Nov. 1 for people interested in learning more about McMullin. The independent candidate was slated to speak and answer questions about his platform at the event.
The Cumming family are longtime Democratic donors in the Beehive State. The late patriarch of the family, Ian Cumming, was a giant of Utah’s ski industry through his ownership of Park City and Snowbird resorts. His wife and children carry on both legacies through ownership of POWDR, a massive ski resort operating company, and continued patronage of Democratic causes in Utah. Annette Cumming, John Cumming and David Cumming have donated $200,000, $325,000 and $200,000, respectively, to Put Utah First. Annette Cumming is involved in numerous reproductive rights organizations, and previously served on the national board of directors of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Reid Hoffman is the co-founder of career-oriented social networking site LinkedIn, and gave $250,000 to Put Utah First. He has a record of donating to left-leaning causes and candidates, and in 2016 created “Trumped Up Cards,” a card game modeled after Cards Against Humanity that was intended to poke fun at former President Donald Trump. The New York Times reported in 2018 that Hoffman funded an effort in Alabama to imitate Russian influence tactics from the 2016 presidential election on social media to help now-former Sen. Doug Jones beat his Republican opponent, Roy Moore. Hoffman later apologized and said he was unaware that his money was being used for that purpose.
Sam Walton is an heir to the Walmart fortune. His political contributions typically contrast those of his family — he gives to Democrats over Republicans. In 2012, he was donating to President Barack Obama while other Waltons supported Mitt Romney. Walton gave $100,000 to Put Utah First.
Kevin Garn is a real estate developer and, in 2020, was one of Utah’s top political donors. He gave $50,000 to Put Utah First. Garn is a former Utah House majority leader and U.S. congressional candidate. In 2010, Garn resigned from his post after allegations surfaced that he hot-tubbed nude with a minor 25 years prior. He admitted to paying the woman $150,000 to not go public with her story during his 2002 congressional campaign.
Daniel Lubetsky is the founder and executive chairman of the snack company KIND, as well as a philanthropist who works in the realms of education, public health, conflict and food policy. This election cycle, he has donated to both Republican and Democratic candidates. He gave $50,000 to Put Utah First.
Rachel Pritzker is a member of the Pritzker family of billionaires, which includes Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker, that founded Hyatt Hotels. She is the founder and president of the Pritzker Innovation Fund, which describes itself as “supporting the development and advancement of paradigm-shifting ideas to solve the world’s most wicked problems.” Pritzker, who gave $25,000 to Put Utah First, was according to The New York Times, the founder of an informal cross-partisan group called Patriots and Pragmatists, of which McMullin was a part.
David Wright is the co-founder and CEO of Pattern, a Silicon Slopes company focused on e-commerce. Wright donated $25,000 to Put Utah First. Although he is relatively new to the political scene, in 2020 Wright donated to Republican causes, like former Georgia Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, and made other donations through the Republican fundraising platform WinRed.
Kem Gardner is a real estate developer and the namesake of the influential Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah. He has donated $10,000 to Put Utah First. Among the development projects he has been involved in are The Gateway in downtown Salt Lake City, Sugar House Commons and Brickyard Plaza. Gardner is a two-time Democratic gubernatorial candidate (in 1984 and 1992) and became friends with Sen. Mitt Romney in the late 1980s when Gardner presided over The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Massachusetts Boston Mission. He gave $100,000 toward defeating Proposition 2 — a successful 2018 ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana in Utah — and regularly donates to both Republican and Democratic politicians.
Jonathan Coon is a graduate of Brigham Young University and the co-founder of Utah-based 1-800 Contacts. He also financed the indie comedy film “Napoleon Dynamite.” Coon, who now lives in Texas, primarily donates to Republican candidates, with the exception of the late Latter-day Saint Nevada Sen. Harry Reid. He contributed $10,000 to Put Utah First.
Michael Dubin is the founder of Dollar Shave Club. He mostly gives to Democrats, but gave $10,000 to Put Utah First.
Michael Hutchings is a former 3rd Utah District Court judge and retired real estate developer and attorney. Hutchings left the bench in 1998 — two years after breaking with judicial tradition to criticize Salt Lake City for not being tough enough on crime in his treatise “Another Vietnam: Salt Lake’s War On Crime.” While his perspective was supported by police, the then-judge was reportedly criticized by the city’s Latino community for “describing the ‘typical drug dealer’ in Salt Lake as an illegal immigrant from Mexico,” according to a The Salt Lake Tribune article written at the time. Hutchings gave $10,000 to Put Utah First.
“I was offended when he likened Donald Trump to Captain Moroni in the Book of Mormon. Captain Moroni and Donald Trump are polar opposites,” Hutchings told The Tribune. " ... It’s embarrassing but Mike’s become a Trump lapdog.”
Liberty Champions PAC
Candidate the PAC supports: Mike Lee
Money spent so far on the race, as of Nov. 4: $1,639,891.09
What to know: Based out of a P.O. Box in Wisconsin, this super PAC exclusively supports Lee. It was organized in April 2021, and a man named Thomas Datwyler is listed as the treasurer and custodian of records. Datwyler has acted as a treasurer for dozens of conservative campaign committees and political action committees, including Lee’s principal campaign committee (which happens to share the same Wisconsin P.O. Box). Its ads — sent over text and in the mail, and flooding social media — call McMullin a “deadbeat,” attacking him for debt he has leftover from his presidential campaign, and for his criticisms of Republicans.
Timothy Mellon, of Wyoming, is the chairman of transportation company Pan Am Systems and is the grandson of banking tycoon Andrew Mellon. In his 2015 self-published autobiography, the billionaire reportedly used racial stereotypes to describe African Americans. According to The Washington Post, Mellon wrote that Black people were “even more belligerent” after the expansion of social programs in the 1960s and 1970s and that Americans who rely on government assistance were “slaves of a new Master, Uncle Sam.” The Texas Tribune reported last year that Mellon was the primary contributor to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s border wall fund. Mellon gave $500,000 to Liberty Champions.
Ocean Star International and its owner, Simon Goe, have together donated $210,000 to Liberty Champions. Ocean Star International is a Utah-based brine shrimp company. Goe and his wife give hundreds of thousands of dollars to conservative causes each election cycle.
Stephen Schwarzman is the chairman and CEO of private equity firm The Blackstone Group, and is a longtime friend of Donald Trump. He came under fire in 2010 for comparing then-President Barack Obama’s economic policy to Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Schwarzman was appointed chair of what Trump called his Strategic and Policy Forum. He gave $100,000 to Liberty Champions.
Leandro Rizzuto Jr. is the son of the co-founder of Conair and has given $70,000 to Liberty Champions. Trump unsuccessfully nominated him to be the U.S. ambassador to Barbados, then appointed him consul general — a role that doesn’t require Senate confirmation — in Hamilton, Bermuda. During the 2016 presidential election, Rizzuto spread conspiracy theories on Twitter about Trump’s opponents. Among them were assertions that Sen. Ted Cruz was unfaithful to his wife, Heidi, and that she was leading an effort to combine the U.S. government with those of Canada and Mexico.
Jerry Grundhofer is the former CEO and chairman of U.S. Bancorp. His family foundation is based in Park City. He gave $40,000 to Liberty Champions.
David Studdert is the CRO of Utah-based surveillance camera company LiveView Technologies, which has both commercial and governmental clients. He’s contributed $25,000 to Liberty Champions.
Cocolalla LLC is a Utah prepackaged software company that’s registered in Alaska. It’s owned by Josh James, the founder of cloud software company Domo and web analytics company Omniture, which he sold to Adobe. He works as an advisor to LiveView Technologies. James has given thousands of dollars to Utah Republicans, and Cocolalla LLC gave $20,000 to Liberty Champions.
Fred Lampropoulos is the chairman and CEO of South Jordan-based Merit Medical Systems, which manufactures disposable medical devices. In 2018, his company held a news conference with then-Utah Rep. Mia Love, to whom Lampropoulos donated tens of thousands, to criticize a tax on medical devices designed to fund the Affordable Care Act. When then-Vice President Mike Pence visited Utah in 2019, he toured Merit Medical Systems’ facilities and spoke about a Trump trade deal. Lampropoulos’ company in 2020 paid $18 million to resolve a lawsuit alleging the company gave illegal kickbacks to medical providers to entice them to use the company’s devices. The executive was a Republican gubernatorial candidate in 2004. He gave $25,000 to Liberty Champions.
4Life Holding is a multi-level marketing company selling nutraceuticals and other wellness products. Its founder and owner is David Lisonbee, who serves on the Young Men General Board of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The company donated $10,000 to Liberty Champions. Lisonbee has given tens of thousands of dollars to support Republican candidates in Utah in just this election cycle.
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