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Rep. Mia Love to return, redesignate $380K raised for primary election

FILE - Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, speaks on the Senate Floor, Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018, at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City.
FILE — Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, speaks on the Senate Floor, Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018, at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City.
Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Mia Love has informed the Federal Election Commission that she will return or redirect hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds that she raised for a primary election that didn't happen.

The commission sent a letter to the Love campaign in August questioning funds she had raised for the Republican primary election. Candidates are not allowed to raise such funds if they don't have a primary, according to the FEC.

The Love campaign told the FEC it would redesignate contributions received after April 21 — the date of the Utah Republican Party convention and date it said it knew for sure there would not be a primary — and before the June 26 primary election.

In total, the campaign will redesignate about $370,000 for another election and "may" refund less than $10,000, according to campaign spokeswoman Sasha Clark.

To redesignate a donation, the campaign must obtain written authorization from the donor and ensure it does not exceed federal contribution limits.

The FEC has not said that Love broke any laws but requested a response for information as to why funds were attributed to the convention and the primary election in her July campaign finance report, Clark said. Love raised about $1.1 million in that reporting period.

"If the FEC decides to issue a response, voters will see that the Mia Love campaign has complied with the FEC and Utah’s unique elections rules and laws," Clark said.

Love's opponent in the 4th Congressional District race, Democratic Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, said "everybody in Utah" knew on March 15 — the candidate filing deadline — that Love wouldn't face a primary. No other Republicans filed to run in the district.

He said she tried to "game the system" by continuing to raise money after that date.

McAdams said Love should give back the more than $1 million she collected for a primary against an opponent she knew "full well" did not exist.

"It is a clear violation of federal law, and she needs to do what's right and return the money," he said. "Ill-gotten funds used to persuade the voters is simply wrong."

Clark said Love has always known her campaign would be under a microscope and it has made "extreme" efforts to comply with every rule.

"The FEC has not made any charges or accusations, just Ben and the Democrats have. They simply asked us a question and we responded," she said.

A poll last week showed Love with a slim three-point lead over McAdams in the hotly contested race.

In Utah, candidates may secure a spot in the primary election at a political party convention, gathering a requisite number of signatures or both.

Love declared her intent to collect signatures in January and paid a firm $36,000 to circulate her petitions. She later decided not to file the petition signatures that were gathered and to seek the nomination at the state GOP convention, according to the letter her campaign finance lawyers sent the FEC last week.

Running unopposed, the two-term congresswoman easily won the nomination with enough votes to bypass the primary and go straight to the general election ballot.

While no challenger filed prior to the March 15 deadline to be a candidate for nomination at the state party convention, a primary election candidate could have filed petition signatures up until April 7, two weeks before the date of the convention, the letter says.

Petitions are not certified until the day before the convention, meaning that until April 20, it was not known with certainty whether any challenger had qualified for the primary election ballot, according to the letter.

Similarly, the letter says, it was not known until the day of the state party convention that there would be no primary election at all.

McAdams campaign spokesman Andrew Roberts called Love's explanation in the letter a "hypothetical argument that's not steeped in reality."

"Her argument here on its face is meant to distract and to confuse," he said.

Love’s campaign finance lawyers say in the letter that the situation is no different than the one Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, was in two years ago. Lee also raised money for a primary election in 2016 that was not held because no other GOP candidates qualified for the ballot.

One Republican declared to run against Lee but withdrew about two weeks before the state convention. Lee learned five days before the convention that no signature-gathering candidate had qualified for the primary. Lee won the nomination at the convention running unopposed.

The commission determined that the Lee campaign had no choice but to prepare for both the primary election and the party convention at the same time because of the short time frame between the convention and the election.

The FEC's general counsel recommended that Lee refund $453,000 to contributors, but the FEC commissioners allowed him to keep the money because of the "unique facts" in the case.

"The 'unique facts' of the 2016 matter involving Sen. Lee have not changed," Love's lawyers wrote.

The FEC questioned Rep. Chris Stewart's fundraising before the primary election in 2016 and 2018. The commission found in Stewart's favor after hearing from his campaign two years ago but has not issued a decision this year.

Campaign spokesman Lance Stewart said the congressman's circumstances were the same as Lee's, not Love's.

Stewart, R-Utah, faced multiple challengers that could have forced him into a primary at the convention. The campaign did not solicit any primary election donations after he won the nomination at the convention. It also redesignated or refunded a "small handful" of unsolicited funds designated for the primary election it received after the convention, he said.

"Each of these three distinctions (and certainly their combination) place us squarely in the factual scenario faced by the Mike Lee campaign previously allowed by the FEC and materially distinguish our circumstance from what has been reported is faced by the Mia Love campaign presently," Lance Stewart said in an email.