Tight Race for Chaffetz’s Utah Seat Due to Outside Spending

Three GOP candidates face off in Tuesday’s primary

Former Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz vacated his House seat in June, triggering a special election in the 3rd District. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Former Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz vacated his House seat in June, triggering a special election in the 3rd District. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted August 14, 2017 at 5:05am

The Republican primary to fill former Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s seat has tightened in the final days before the Tuesday election, thanks to buckets of outside money being poured into the race.

The primary is “certainly not a race [where] I would want to bet the farm on who was going to win,” veteran Utah GOP consultant Dave Hansen said.

It’s the Beehive State’s first special election for a House seat in nearly 90 years, and the winner could hang onto the 3rd District seat for a while. The three Republican contenders battling it out are Provo Mayor John Curtis, former state Rep. Chris Herrod, and businessman Tanner Ainge.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Solid Republican, so whoever wins the GOP primary on Tuesday would be in a strong position heading into the Nov. 7 general election against Democrat Kathie Allen, a local physician.

Outside money

The Salt Lake Tribune calculated that outside super PACS have spent more than $850,000 on the race since May, much of it on negative ads aimed at Curtis, the front-runner. 

“As much as people say they hate negative ads, they do work,” said Hansen.

Polls have shown the race tightening in recent weeks as the sizable number of undecided voters start making up their minds.

A Utah Policy poll from July showed Curtis leading Herrod by nearly 20 points, with half of those surveyed undecided. But a poll from the same outfit released Thursday showed Curtis’ lead over Herrod had narrowed to 8 points, 31 percent to 23 percent, with Ainge in third at 15 percent, and roughly a quarter of respondents still undecided.

So why are outside groups spending so much money on one House race?

“Whoever we elect — unless he does something dumb personally or misappropriates funds — is going to be there for a decade or more,” GOP strategist Chuck Warren said.

This race presented an opportunity to elect an ally on a host of issues such as health care, taxes and government spending, Warren added.

The conservative Club for Growth’s campaign arm, which has endorsed Herrod, has spent nearly $300,000 attacking Curtis and Ainge, according to the Salt Lake Tribune calculations. 

The Curtis campaign is trying to break through the ads, sticking with positive messaging and highlighting a radio ad featuring Utah’s Republican governor, Gary R. Herbert, who endorsed Curtis.

Danny Laub, a spokesman for Curtis’ campaign, also noted that most of the candidate’s campaign contributions have come from within the state, while the outside groups are not based in Utah.

“We’re proud to be the Utah-funded, Utah-principled, Utah-based campaign,” Laub said.

Curtis has raised nearly $1 million, with 87 percent of contributions coming from within Utah, according to Federal Election Commission documents. Herrod has raised more than $200,000 with 36 percent of contributions from Utah while in-state donors accounted for roughly 35 percent of Ainge’s more than $340,000 in contributions.

Hansen and veteran GOP consultant LaVarr Webb both said Curtis could have done more to counteract the negative ads. But Laub, Curtis’ spokesman, said the ads questioning the Provo mayor’s record and conservatism would not resonate.

“I think the voters of Utah are smarter than that,” Laub said.

Curtis was once the chairman of the Utah County Democratic Party and he has been criticized for not being a true Republican. Laub pointed out that Chaffetz, President Donald Trump, and the late President Ronald Reagan were all former Democrats, too.

Herrod said in an interview last week that the ads are a product of the candidates trying to paint themselves as more conservative than they are.

Conservative Utah, a super PAC backing Ainge, has also been active in the race. The group is mainly funded by Ainge’s family. His father, Danny, is the manager of the Boston Celtics basketball team, and was a star player at Brigham Young University, located in the district.

Amid all of the ads and outside spending, the candidates are also focused on turning out their voters ahead of the primary.

The election is unique since five of the seven counties in the expansive district are conducting the primary by mail-in ballots only.

Hansen, the GOP consultant, suggested the mail-in process could lead to higher turnout, which could benefit Curtis, who heads the largest city in the district. He noted that Herrod’s conservative backers were going to vote anyway, so the opportunity to mail ballots in could boost turnout for supporters of the others.

Standing apart

Each primary candidate has been attempting to distinguish himself by highlighting his varied experiences, and claiming the mantle as the true conservative.

Herrod has been touting his endorsement from Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, who visited the district last month to campaign for him. (Herrod coordinated Cruz’s presidential primary campaign in the state.)

He’s also backed by Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, the Senate Conservatives Fund, and the House Freedom Fund, which is the PAC associated with the House Freedom Caucus.

Herrod, who served in the Utah state House from 2007 to 2012, said the desire to have a conservative in Congress has given him momentum in the race.

“I think Utahns are beginning to realize that now is not the time to take a chance which someone who doesn’t have a record or kind of mixed record on conservative principles,” he said, referring to his opponents.

Curtis has defended his conservative credentials, saying he has the know-how to get things done in the nation’s capital. As mayor, his approval ratings have reportedly been in the 90s.

Ainge, 33, a political newcomer who recently moved back to Utah, has cast himself as a conservative businessman. He was relatively unknown when he entered the race, though his last name was familiar to voters who remembered his father’s basketball legacy at BYU.

Danny Ainge has headlined fundraisers for his son, but Hansen said the BYU basketball legend probably would have been a larger presence on the campaign trail had it not been for the Boston Celtics taking the Utah Jazz’s star player Gordon Hayward.

Ainge’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment, but he has faced criticism for his family’s involvement in funding the super PAC.

“It does appear to a lot of voters that his family is trying to buy this seat for him,” said Webb, the GOP consultant. 

No Trump-eting

Campaign operatives and strategists said Trump has not come up on the campaign trail. That’s a stark contrast to the Alabama Senate GOP primary, also happening Tuesday, where candidates have tried to align themselves with the president.

But Trump is not as popular in Utah as he is in Alabama.

Trump carried the 3rd District by 24 points in November, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections. But Cruz won all counties in the distict in the GOP presidential primary.

Still, the candidates have not rejected Trump and all say they support his agenda. But they have mainly focused on issues such as health care and the economy, and on getting things done in the gridlocked Congress.

“I think tying yourself to Trump here would probably not provide victory,” said Warren, the GOP strategist. “What people are looking for here is someone who’s going to vote conservative.”