Utah's two main political parties — the Republicans and the Democrats — have lost some of their political clout through federal campaign finance reform because millions of dollars no longer flow through their coffers, a new study shows.
A new nationwide report by The Institute on Money in State Politics shows that with the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act — which applied for the first time to the 2004 elections — state parties can no longer get millions of dollars in "soft money" from their national party colleagues.
While the money came with instructions to spend the cash on this or that race, it was up to local parties to decide the message and best use of the money.
"Yeah, at some levels we have less influence," says Todd Taylor, newly rehired executive director of the Utah Democratic Party.
"State parties are not nearly as wealthy as in the past," said Spencer Jenkins, state GOP executive director.
Since 2000, the Utah Democratic Party has seen its overall donations drop by 65 percent. Republicans have seen their donations down by 49 percent, the study shows.
Especially in the hotly contested re-elections of Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, in the 2nd Congressional District, local party leaders have lost the power to funnel big bucks here and there.
"We've always done fairly well in (state party) fund raising" — outside of national party donations — said Taylor, who after an 18-month absence is now back in the position he held for a decade. "Now we have to do better."
The study, which can be found at www.followthemoney.org, concludes that the finance reform "effectively cut millions of dollars (from) state political parties, which had grown increasingly reliant on the national parties for a significant source of their funds."
It's clear that in recent years the state Democratic Party — under then-chairman Donald Dunn in 2003-2004 — has not keep pace with the majority Republican Party, which historically has had more access to cash, both through a larger donation base and because the party has more wealthy donors.
For example, in the big election year of 2000 (there were presidential, senatorial and gubernatorial races, as well as a tightly contested 2nd District race), the Utah GOP took in $1.77 million. Democrats weren't far behind with $1.72 million.
In the non-presidential elections of 2002, Utah Republicans collected $1.3 million. But Democrats were down to $781,000.
The slide was even worse in 2004, when "soft money" from national parties was outlawed: Republicans collected $906,000 to the Democrats paltry $594,000, the study shows.
Taylor was executive director in 2000 and 2002. But Dunn let Taylor go in December 2003. Taylor was rehired by the party's new chairman, Wayne Holland, this summer.
"I can't say why" Republicans outraised Democrats in the 2003-2004 election cycle, said Taylor. "You'd have to ask the previous (party) administration." Dunn couldn't be reached for comment.
Taylor says the drop from $1.7 million to $1.3 million from 2000 to 2002 can be explained.
Both national parties targeted Utah's 2nd District in 2000 — the year that then-GOP incumbent Rep. Merrill Cook was dumped by Republicans in a June primary. The open seat in the narrowly divided U.S. House was greatly coveted — spending coming in early and strong from the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Taylor.
In 2002, polls showed Matheson stronger than 2000. And Taylor says the national campaign committee didn't "come into the race until much later." With less time to buy expensive TV ads before Election Day, the state Democratic Party didn't see as much committee money that year. Matheson narrowly won.
Taylor said one of the study's observations — that wealthy donors may start giving to state parties because they can't directly influence local races anymore through donations to the national parties — is being picked up by Utah Democrats.
Taylor said he can't give details now, "but we are going after big donors" with a new emphasis, both inside and outside of the state.
Soft money passdowns from the national party were outlawed in 2004, giving a truer picture of base party strength. And being outspent by nearly 2-to-1 last year by Republicans is not an acceptable trend, Taylor adds.
Utah Republicans have not seen such a dramatic slide in fund raising. But Jenkins said the trend is still not good.
"Many say parties were created to help get like-minded people elected. And that's harder now. We don't have the freedom or leeway to do what we want with our dollars," Jenkins said.
Political cash can have an impact even in a state that leans heavily toward one party anyway.
Republicans hold every major office in Utah except Matheson's 2nd District. Republicans hold two-thirds majorities in the state House and Senate, as well as control of most county councils or commissions.