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Big money floods race to replace Sen. Mitt Romney

Deseret News
Big money has started rolling in for Utah’s first competitive Republican primary for an open Senate seat in three decades.

Salt Lake City lawyer Brent Hatch was notified over the weekend that his campaign to replace Sen. Mitt Romney for the U.S. Senate seat held by his father for 42 years had attracted the biggest investment from a Political Action Committee of any candidate so far this election cycle.

The Virginia-based Conservative Outsider PAC committed $1.8 million to purchase television and radio advertisements for Hatch over the next month, giving him a boost among the crowded field of Senate hopefuls vying for donors’ dollars and PAC endorsements.

“I am honored that others have heard our conservative message and that they agree I can best represent Utah,” Hatch told the Deseret News on Tuesday.

The race’s biggest fundraisers so far, U.S. Rep. John Curtis and former state House Speaker Brad Wilson, are also eyeing big ad buys over the next few weeks. Conservative Values for Utah, a PAC created to encourage Curtis to swap a House reelection bid for a Senate campaign, has placed or reserved $968,000 in ads for the congressman, according to an AdImpact report.

Wilson’s campaign has dedicated a total of $433,000 for ads, and the campaign committees of Jason Walton, CEO of Moxie Pest Control, have spent a combined total of $290,000 on media buys in recent weeks, the report showed.

While candidates have control over how donations to their principle campaign committees are spent, they have no control over which PACs choose to support them and what campaign strategies PACs take. In fact, campaigns are prohibited from coordinating with PACs under federal law.

Conservative Outsider PAC has already released one video ad featuring images of Hatch with his father, the late Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, with a narrator saying Hatch will “take on power brokers in both parties” to achieve conservative priorities like reducing the national debt.

More than 10 years ago, Conservative Outsider’s principle donor, the Club for Growth, made it its mission to prevent the senior Hatch from serving a seventh term. Then-Club for Growth president Chris Chocola criticized Hatch for not being conservative enough on fiscal issues. The organization even encouraged former Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz to run against him in the GOP primary, The Washington Post reported. At the time, Hatch framed the attacks as out-of-state interference against a Utah conservative.

In the last congressional election cycle, Club for Growth Action funded nearly 80% of Conservative Outsider’s campaign activity, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Conservative Outsider shares the same media buyer and supports the same candidates as Club for Growth, an industry expert at one of the top political media buyers in the country told the Deseret News on Tuesday.

According to Club for Growth’s website, it targets its support to “limited-government, pro-growth economic conservative candidates for U.S. Congress.” The organization endorsed Utah Sen. Mike Lee in his 2022 reelection and played a role in his defeat of incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett in 2010. In an interview with the Deseret News, Brent Hatch said reducing the country’s $34 trillion debt was his top issue.

The involvement of Club for Growth in Utah’s Senate race is likely just the beginning, the political ad expert said.

“This is the largest (ad) buy that’s been laid down in this race so far but no one else has booked anything in April yet,” he said, adding, “While it might be the biggest we’ve seen so far in this Utah race, there’s a lot of (ad) buys out there, especially for open Senate seats that don’t happen a lot.”

The Conservative Values for Utah PAC was created in October to endorse a Curtis Senate campaign after he said he would not run for Romney’s seat. According to FEC filings, the committee is funded almost entirely by Jay Faison, the founder of ClearPath, a nonprofit aimed at reducing global emissions through technology like nuclear energy, carbon capture and geothermal. ClearPath Action Fund announced in February it would be donating $500,000 to support Curtis in the first quarter of 2024.

Curtis has made a name for himself during three terms in the U.S. House as an outspoken voice advocating for an “affordable, reliable and clean” energy transition that makes room for fossil fuels and prioritizes innovation in nuclear energy.

But Curtis’ efforts to mainstream climate-conscious energy policy among Republicans have been criticized by fellow Senate candidates, including Hatch.

The PAC created to support Wilson, Utahns for Liberty, has reported $100,000 in expenditures to oppose Curtis. The PAC produced two ads in January criticizing Curtis for inaction on the border.

A Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll conducted in January found the race was still up in the air, with just over half of Republican voters saying they hadn’t decided who to support yet. Among voters with a favored candidate, Curtis was leading with 18%, followed by Hatch at 14%, and Wilson at 8%.

Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs, who has received endorsements from Alabama Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville and Turning Point USA, received 3%. Former regional director for Sen. Lee Carolyn Phippen, and other candidates, including Walton, received 1% or less, with 52% of respondents saying they didn’t know who they would vote for in a Republican primary election for U.S. Senate.

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