SALT LAKE CITY — Danny Ainge and his wife contributed $250,000 to a political action committee supporting their son, Tanner, in his 3rd Congressional District primary race but have nothing to do with how the money's being spent, the elder Ainge said Tuesday.
"The money is theirs to do what they want to do with it. We're at their mercy," Danny Ainge told the Deseret News. "I know it sounds like there is some involvement, but there is not. We have zero to do with the super PAC."
Ainge, the general manager of the Boston Celtics, said he hasn't even seen the mailers and commercials produced by the Conservative Utah PAC that have been criticized as negative campaigning.
"I've got a full-time job, and I'm not paying attention to all that stuff," he said. "We're just trying to support our son. … We think he has a chance to have a real positive impact, and we're trying to give him a chance."
Federal campaign rules prohibit coordination between campaigns and the so-called "super" PACs that unlike a candidate's campaign committee are allowed to accept as much money as an individual, company or union wants to give.
The Conservative Utah PAC lists $250,000 in contributions from Tanner Ainge's mother, Michelle Toolson Ainge, and another $10,000 from his grandfather, James Richard Toolson, in July.
Ryan Smith, CEO of Qualtrics, a Utah County-based tech giant, is the other donor in the most recent Federal Election Commission filing by the recently created super PAC, giving $30,000 last month.
Tanner Ainge's opponents in the three-way race for the Republican nomination for the seat held by former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Provo Mayor John Curtis and former state lawmaker Chris Herrod, both questioned the family's financial support.
Curtis and Herrod were targeted in a recent TV commercial from the super PAC for supporting tax increases. The same commercial labeled Tanner Ainge, a political newcomer, "the only anti-tax candidate."
"I had no idea I was running against Danny Ainge," Herrod told KSL Newsradio's Doug Wright. The contributions to the Conservative Utah PAC is "not Utah money. It's primarily from Boston," he said.
Herrod noted that he, too, is benefiting from outside spending in the race, including media produced by Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz's leadership PAC, known as Jobs, Freedom and Security.
Curtis, who has been the target of much of all super PAC spending, said on "The Doug Wright Show" that "there's a difference between what's legal, and what's right and transparent and acceptable here in Utah."
Curtis said it "seems a little disingenuous" for Tanner Ainge to say he can't control what Conservative Utah does. "Clearly, it wouldn't be too hard to say, 'Uh, this isn't a good idea, Mom and Dad. Let's not do this.'"
Tanner Ainge did not talk Tuesday about his family's involvement in the super PAC. But Monday he said they "can't talk about the PAC but, look, I'm happy to have the support of my family."
The Alpine lawyer said he doesn't want to be beholden to any special interests, so he believes having his family's financial support is "a good thing, that I can vote my conscience. I can vote whatever I want, even if it's a negative impact."
His campaign manager, Mike McCarlie, said in a statement on the super PAC issued Tuesday that another super PAC is running ads going after Ainge this week. "That's part of politics," McCarlie said.
The Washington, D.C.-based Club for Growth, which endorsed Herrod, has contracted for more than $140,000 in airtime for a Halloween-themed TV commercial accusing Ainge and Curtis of masquerading as conservatives.
The concerns being raised about the super PAC supporting Ainge, McCarlie said later, is a result of the race tightening up in the final days until the Aug. 15 GOP primary.
"That's a sign to us that we're doing well, and they're worried about that," he said.
Polls have put Curtis in the lead, but McCarlie said the campaign's internal polling shows Ainge is closing the gap.
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said the situation surrounding the super PAC supporting Ainge is unusual.
"It stretches the notion of independence when the primary funders of an outside interest group supporting a candidate are that candidate's parents," Karpowitz said, especially given the involvement of other super PACs in the campaign.
"I would agree the motivations for getting involved are likely quite different, but the effect is no less meaningful," Karpowitz said. "The outside money is shaping the tenor of the campaign and the substance of the campaign."
Still, most voters probably won't be paying attention to how the super PAC is being funded and may not mind the money coming from Danny Ainge, a former star basketball player for BYU and the NBA, Karpowitz said.
"The Ainge family is well-known in the state," he said, "and at least up until Gordon Hayward left the (Utah) Jazz (for the Celtics), were well-liked in the state."
Kirk Jowers, an expert on campaign finance, said "the vast majority" of advertising from super PACs is negative and may discourage voters from participating in an off-year special election being held in the summer.
But Jowers said he doubts the contributions by Tanner Ainge's parents will hurt him in the race. He said other Utah candidates, such as former governor and presidential candidate Jon Huntsman Jr., have counted on family support.
"Utah prides itself on being a very family-first kind of state," Jowers said. "I think at its core, it won't have a negative impact. It's a family trying to support their son in doing a noble thing in running for office."
He said the Ainge family's contributions to the super PAC don't appear to create any legal or ethical liability. Family and friends typically back super PACs, Jowers said, because they want to give more than the $2,700 limit allowed directly to campaigns.
Jason Perry, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said the association between a candidate and a super PAC can be a gray area that "starts to raise some eyebrows."
Perry said that in a super PAC "set up to support a candidate that gets a large portion of its funding from a family member is legal, but the important thing is that it stays arm's-length away from the candidate."
The winner of the Republican primary will face several candidates in the November special election for the 3rd District seat, including Democrat Kathie Allen and new United Utah Party candidate Jim Bennett.
The 3rd District, which includes portions of Salt Lake and Utah counties, as well as Carbon, Emery, Grand, San Juan, and Wasatch counties, had been represented by Chaffetz since 2008. He stepped down June 30 and is a Fox News contributor.