It was the costliest S.L. County Council contest ever. One GOP council member hopes it’s a wake-up call to Republicans.

Democratic victor Suzanne Harrison far outraised and outspent Republican incumbent Richard Snelgrove. Could this be the start of a blue wave in the county?

(The Salt Lake Tribune) Suzanne Harrison, left, ousted incumbent Richard Snelgrove in her bid for the Salt Lake County Council's at-large "B" seat. Harrison far outraised and outspent Snelgrove during the campaign.

Money doesn’t guarantee an election victory, but it doesn’t hurt. And it may have helped Democrats snatch a key seat on the Salt Lake County Council.

Democratic challenger Suzanne Harrison outpaced Republican incumbent Richard Snelgrove by more than 36,500 votes for a countywide, six-year seat, according to final election results, earning 202,616 votes (55%) to her opponent’s 166,077 (45%).

And Harrison outraised and outspent Snelgrove by even larger margins, amassing eight times as much money as him and shelling out 12 times as much, making it the most expensive Salt Lake County Council matchup on record.

Her win marked the Democrats’ most significant pickup of the year in Utah and narrowed the GOP’s 6-3 council majority to 5-4. Democrats also hold the executive arm, with Jenny Wilson as county mayor.

Harrison’s campaign strategist, Ian Koski, said paid communication is essential to reaching voters, but success also depends on having the right candidate with the right message.

“And in this case, that worked out,” Koski said. “Suzanne was the right candidate with the right message, and she was able to get that message out to enough voters because she was able to raise the money to do it, and because she spent enough time on the doors to introduce herself.”

As of Nov. 1 — a week before Election Day — Harrison had collected nearly $450,000 to Snelgrove’s $55,000, campaign finance disclosures show.

How Harrison spent her money

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Winning candidate Suzanne Harrison, second from left, is all smiles at the Sheraton in Salt Lake City, on election night, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.

Harrison, a sitting member of the Utah House who jumped into the council race after redistricting thwarted her reelection chances on Capitol Hill, has pointed to her platform of lowering the cost of living, spending tax dollars wisely, improving air quality, conserving water and protecting quality of life as keys to her successful campaign.

She forked out nearly $400,000 to deliver her message, turning to television, radio, digital, billboards and signs.

Snelgrove, who did not respond to an interview request, spent less than $33,000 throughout the race.

Candidates still have one more campaign finance report to file, due Jan. 31. When Harrison submits her final disclosure, Koski expects the total amount raised to come in at $463,000.

Ad blitzes go hand in hand with voter outreach, Koski said, and Harrison put in the work to connect with the electorate.

He said voters were frustrated with inflation and fed up with an out-of-control housing market. They wanted the GOP-led County Council to work better. And even Republican voters, Koski said, responded to the Democrat’s bid.

“You can’t win with a 10-point margin without persuading a pretty healthy swath of independent and moderate Republican voters,” he said. “And it appears she did that successfully.”

Harrison’s campaign prioritized digital ads, Koski said, because of the ability to target specific segments of the electorate.

Sheldon Stewart, the Riverton City Council member who ousted District 5 County Council member Steve DeBry in the Republican primary to secure his place on the body next year, said Harrison dominated the digital space.

“We’re in a digital world,” he said, “and I think that your digital presence has to be just as present as your physical presence with signs and stuff.”

A wake-up call for GOP voters?

Dave Alvord, another GOP member of the County Council, said Democratic spending — and Republican complacency — contributed to Harrison’s victory. Fundraising numbers, he said, showed the contest was important to Democratic donors.

Republicans, meanwhile, have been so accustomed to holding the majority that they were not engaged, he said. Alvord hopes Snelgrove’s loss serves as a wake-up call for GOP voters in the state’s most populous county.

“It might be good for us to have that paradigm shift where we don’t take elections for granted,” he said, “and that we make small contributions to candidates that are running, or to the party, and that we play to win instead of just sitting back.”

University of Utah political science associate professor Luke Garrott believes Harrison’s triumph signifies a shift toward future Democratic success in the county.

“I expect that pendulum to continue to swing towards the Democrats at the county level,” he said. “I would expect in the next election Republicans to lose another seat or two.”

Matthew Burbank, also a political science professor at the U., hesitates to draw that conclusion from Harrison’s victory.

It all depends on the circumstances of the election, Burbank said, from which candidates are running to what motivates voters in a particular cycle.

“What this shows is that Republicans can win these seats, Democrats can win these seats,” he said. “Neither party has a lock on them.”

In this year’s cycle, Democrats prevailed in five Salt Lake County races; Republicans in three.

Democratic incumbents cruised to victories for council District 1 (Arlyn Bradshaw), district attorney (Sim Gill) and sheriff (Rosie Rivera), while newcomer Lannie Chapman kept the clerk’s office in Democratic hands (replacing longtimer Sherrie Swensen).

Joining Stewart in the GOP winners’ circle were District 3 incumbents Aimee Winder Newton and auditor Chris Harding.