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The key in Utah primary elections isn’t campaign cash, ‘it's how you spend it’

Both Gov. Spencer Cox and his challenger, state Rep. Phil Lyman, addressed delegates at the 2024 Utah GOP Nominating Convention at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City, April 27, 2024.
Sean Higgins
Both Gov. Spencer Cox and his challenger, state Rep. Phil Lyman, addressed delegates at the 2024 Utah GOP Nominating Convention at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City, April 27, 2024.

Political campaigns spend millions trying to earn your vote each election season. In the Republican primary to replace retiring Utah Sen. Mitt Romney alone, candidates Rep. John Curtis, Trent Staggs, Brad Wilson and Jason Walton have raised a combined $11.4 million, according to Federal Election Commission disclosures.

It’s not just GOP hopefuls who are raking in the dough, either. Democrat Caroline Gleich raised $389,534.76 and Independent American Carlton E. Bowen has accumulated $8,568.81.

But money isn’t everything — especially in a race as competitive as Utah’s Senate contest.

“It's not just having money, it's how you spend it,” said longtime state political player David Hansen. He’s been involved in Utah GOP politics for decades and ran successful campaigns for former Sen. Orrin Hatch and former Congresswoman Mia Love.

For Hansen, Hatch’s hard-fought 2012 reelection campaign was proof positive that spending campaign money in the right way was the key to victory.

“This was before you could get signatures and get on the ballot in the primary,” he said.

“If you didn't get out of convention, you were finished. … We did a delegate recruitment identification and persuasion program that has never been done in the state, nor ever will be done in the state. It cost a couple of million dollars, but it was worth it because [Hatch] came out of the convention very, very strong and then swept the primary.”

In fact, Hatch defeated his GOP primary challenger Dan Liljenquist by almost 33 percentage points. He was later reelected to a seventh term with 65.3% of the vote over Democrat Scott Howell.

Hansen’s advice for campaigns with lots of extra money is to find out who your voters are before putting down serious cash for advertising.

“You can get lists of people who vote in primary elections,” he said. “And you can get a list of people who never vote in primary elections. If you put all the money into advertising on television, you're appealing to everybody.”

For candidates without millions to spend, there’s some good news, too. Money can go further for a little-known candidate than an incumbent or other well-known person.

Those are the types of candidates where money does really make a big difference,” said Brigham Young University political science professor Michael Barber.

“That's largely because the reason that candidates are spending all of this money is to raise their name recognition and to get their name in front of voters, whether that's phone calls or knocking on doors or sending mailers or advertisements.”

A race where this dynamic could be at play, Barber said, is the contest for governor. Incumbent Spencer Cox is facing state Rep. Phil Lyman in the GOP primary and both are sitting on some serious campaign cash.

“If Spencer Cox spends another million dollars helping people know who he is, that's not going to have a huge impact as opposed to someone who's trying to challenge him and has pretty low name recognition.”

Lyman, while well-known in Utah GOP circles and the darling of April’s state nominating convention, faces a strong incumbent. An April 29 poll by Noble Predictive Insights showed Cox with an overwhelming 81% support among Republican voters who have made up their minds on who they want to vote for.

“It is an uphill battle because [Lyman is] not a household name and he's going to have to spend a lot more money to become a household name,” said former Utah GOP Executive Director Spencer Stokes. “There's really only two people in that race, so it's going to be very hard for Lyman to get noticed outside of the conservative delegate types.”

As a note of disclosure, Stokes is a member of KUER’s advisory board and has worked as a political consultant on campaigns in the past. He is not associated with the governor’s reelection campaign.

According to the most recent financial disclosures, Lyman has more than $638,000 still in his campaign coffers and significantly outraised Cox in the first quarter of 2024. Cox however has more money overall, with nearly $1 million.

Candidates like Lyman without widespread name recognition would be keen to be strategic on how they spend that money, too. Stokes said money can just as easily work against a campaign.

“Having too much money can also be a negative because you tend to not think through strategy as much. When you have a lot of money, you tend to just throw it at the problem.”

With no primary challengers to worry about, Democratic Senate candidate Caroline Gleich and gubernatorial candidate state Rep. Brian King both enjoyed fundraising in early 2024 that outraised many of their Republican counterparts. But there are some things money just can’t buy in an election year — especially in a state that has not elected a statewide Democrat since the 1990s.

No amount of money can buy an election,” Barber noted as there are “immovable objects that can't be bought.”

“The Democratic Party can run ads nonstop from now until November, and I still will put my money on the Republican nominee winning the Senate race in Utah. And that's just because partisanship is such a strong force today in American politics.”

The next step for Utah candidates on the road to November is the June 25 primary election.

Corrected: May 9, 2024 at 5:01 PM MDT
This story was updated to note that Spencer Stokes is part of KUER's advisory board.
Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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