SALT LAKE CITY – Tech leaders and Democratic Party-aligned groups are among those funneling millions into Utah to support independent Evan McMullin’s bid to unseat Republican Sen. Mike Lee.
The race has been inundated with outside spending, with super PACs unaffiliated with either the Lee or McMullin campaign spending heavily on glossy mailers and attack ads on the local affiliates of the four major television networks in the lead-up to the midterm elections.
The amount of money pouring into the race reflects how McMullin has turned Utah from a political afterthought to a legitimate battleground. The outside spending supporting him also illustrates the traditional partisan dynamics at play in the independent-versus-Republican race and the emerging reality that some Democratic Party-aligned groups and donors see McMullin — an anti-abortion conservative — as one path toward preventing Republicans from controlling the Senate.
McMullin and Lee's campaign have raised $6.9 million and $8.6 million respectively, campaign finance filings published Friday that cover up to Oct. 19 show.
Though they're spending heavily on their own campaign ads, polling, consultants and staff, the candidates are receiving boosts from independent expenditure committees that aren't allowed to coordinate with their campaigns.
The most active is a pro-McMullin super PAC called Put Utah First. It's spent $5.1 million throughout 2022, including $3 million from Oct. 1 to Oct. 19.
The group has received most of its funding from Blake Murray, the former CEO of the financial services technology company Divvy. Murray is among a number of Utah technology leaders and venture capitalists supporting McMullin and co-hosting a fundraiser Tuesday with former Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben McAdams. The group also received $250,000 from American Bridge's political action committee. American Bridge has spent $45 million nationwide on the midterm elections and is running attack ads in traditional battleground states such as Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Put Utah First got an additional $100,000 from the Republican Accountability PAC, which is also running ads against Senate candidates including Herschel Walker in Georgia and J.D. Vance in Ohio.
Put Utah First also has received $700,000 in total from members of the Cumming family, which owns POWDR, one of the Rockies' largest ski resort operators. POWDR's founder and chairman John Cumming; his wife, Kristi; his mother, Annette; and his brother, David, are longtime Democratic donors and this cycle have also contributed to Planned Parenthood's political action committee, the Arizona Democratic Party and Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly.
The group's ads against Lee are set to ominous music, portraying the second-term Republican as an obstructionist unwilling to compromise in Washington, D.C., and highlighting votes against spending bills that would have funded benefits for first responders and veterans.
While not mentioning their own source of funds, the Put Utah First ads blast him for taking campaign contributions from special interest groups.
The super PAC did not respond to requests for comment. The McMullin campaign said it wasn’t allowed to coordinate with outside groups spending in the race, but that the contributions sent directly to the campaign reflected support from across the political spectrum.
“We’re proud of the cross-partisan coalition we’ve built to unite Utahns and solve the mounting problems our state and our country face,” Kelsey Koenen Witt, McMullin’s campaign spokesperson, said. “It is a lie from the Lee campaign and his allies that the Democratic Party is financially supporting Evan.”
On his personal Twitter account, Lee said that the independent expenditures attacking him suggested McMullin leans Democratic. “If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck,” Lee wrote.
McMullin was endorsed by Utah Democrats in April, insists he would caucus with neither party if elected and holds conservative positions on abortion, guns and government spending. He's also a vocal critic of former President Donald Trump.
Independent expenditure groups supporting Republican Senate candidates throughout the country are defending Lee and investing in ads and mailers against McMullin, including the Koch Network-backed Americans for Prosperity, the Consumer Technology Association, Liberty Champions PAC and Crypto Freedom, a pro-Bitcoin PAC affiliated with Club for Growth.
The conservative Club for Growth Action PAC had spent more than $3.7 million to oppose McMullin as of Oct. 19 and said last week that its total spending had grown to more than $8 million. One of the group's ads attacks McMullin's past remarks about Republicans that led to a lawsuit. McMullin said the ad was inaccurate and defamatory and has taken legal action over it.
David McIntosh, the group's CEO, said Club for Growth Action felt it needed to spend money defending Lee and attacking McMullin given the other side's outside spending, to ensure Utah didn't “take away the opportunity for Republicans to get a majority in the U.S. Senate."
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