SALT LAKE CITY — All three of the Republican primary candidates in the race to fill the 3rd Congressional District seat vacated by Jason Chaffetz still have money to spend in the final days of the campaign, according to new financial disclosures.
Reports filed with the Federal Election Commission showed Provo Mayor John Curtis with more than $106,000 in cash on hand as of July 26, while former state lawmaker Chris Herrod had nearly $89,600, and Alpine lawyer Tanner Ainge, nearly $96,500.
Curtis continues to lead in fundraising, posting just under $139,000 in new contributions since July 1, while Herrod collected $58,800, and Ainge $76,400 over the same time period.
But even more telling about the Aug. 15 primary is the money being spent by so-called super political action committees — more than $500,000 so far, according to federal disclosures — is almost as much as the candidates have raised overall.
"For me, the big story in terms of money isn't what's happening in terms of the individual campaigns. It's the independent expenditures, which are huge," said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.
Friday, a political arm of Club for Growth announced it was endorsing Herrod and unveiled a new 30-second Halloween-themed TV commercial complete with jack-o'-lanterns and bats that accuses Curtis and Ainge of masquerading as conservatives.
The Washington-based free-enterprise group has contracted for more than $140,000 in airtime on KSL and other Utah TV stations starting Monday through the primary, and spent more than $5,700 on an anti-Curtis website.
Club For Growth's website said "Herrod is the only proven conservative in the race, and his strongest opponent is liberal Provo Mayor John Curtis, a former Democrat with a long record of supporting higher taxes and bigger government."
Another super PAC, National Horizon, reported spending $96,000 on mailers opposed to Curtis last month and another $58,500 producing and placing pro-Herrod commercials. A National Horizon radio spot labeled Curtis "one smooth politician."
Other independent expenditures on behalf of Herrod include more than $30,800 in media from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's Jobs, Freedom and Security leadership PAC. Cruz, the winner of last year's Utah GOP presidential caucus vote, also endorsed Herrod.
Cruz tweeted a link Friday to a new 30-second commercial that features him urging Utahns to vote for Herrod because Congress needs "conservative reinforcements" after the narrow defeat of the GOP's efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare.
Conservative Utah, another Washington-based super PAC, is backing Ainge. Formed last month, the PAC reported most of its contributions from Ainge relatives and has spent more than $160,000 on mailers and media to support Ainge.
Karpowitz said he's surprised Curtis hasn't responded more strongly. Polls have shown the Provo mayor with a substantial lead over both Herrod and Ainge in the primary, open only to Republican voters.
"Politicians and outside interest groups do negative ads because they can have an effect," Karpowitz said. "They're spending significant amounts of money that could make a difference."
He said the national interest in the race comes as the Republican Party is struggling to define itself amid splits over health care and other issues that have pitted President Donald Trump against both conservative and moderate Republicans.
"I think we see a battle for the future of the Republican Party," Karpowitz said of special primary election occurring in an off-year because Chaffetz stepped down June 30 to take a job as a Fox News contributor.
Curtis, who plans to hold a town hall meeting for voters Tuesday evening at Thanksgiving Point, has used humor on social media to address the mailers being sent out opposing him, suggesting they be used for target practice.
"I think ridiculous, over-the-top D.C. super PAC ads might work in Washington, D.C. They're not going to work in Utah," Curtis spokesman Danny Laub said. But he stopped short of saying Curtis was taking the high road.
"I don't know I would define it like that," Laub said. "I would say it's right for Utah."
He said Gov. Gary Herbert, who has endorsed fellow Utah County Republican Curtis and criticized the negative campaigning in the primary race, has recorded a radio commercial for Curtis.
Ken Sumsion, a top adviser to Herrod, said campaigns are not legally allowed to coordinate with super PACs.
"That is always a concern when another group endorses your campaign, they could hurt more than help sometimes," Sumsion said. "They do bring attention to the issues. Maybe not in a way we would."
Ainge is planning a Monday evening event in Orem where, for $25, attendees can take a turn at a dunk tank featuring Ainge's father, Danny, the general manager of the Boston Celtics that signed Utah Jazz All-Star Gordon Hayward.
A debate among the candidates will be held 10 a.m. Monday on KSL Newsradio's "The Doug Wright Show."
Vote by mail ballots have already been sent out in much of the 3rd District, which includes parts of Salt Lake and Utah counties, and Carbon, Emery, Grand, San Juan, and Wasatch counties.
The winner of the GOP primary will face Democrat Kathie Allen; new United Utah Party candidate Jim Bennett; and several other candidates in the November election for the remainder of Chaffetz's term.