A steady stream of negative campaign ads in the nasty and getting nastier Senate race between Republican Sen. Mike Lee and independent Evan McMullin are making their way to television screens, social media accounts and mailboxes in Utah.

Independent political action committees, or super PACs, are spending millions of dollars to prop up but mostly tear down McMullin and Lee. At the same time, the candidates are running ads with positive messages about themselves, though some of them are also aimed at their opponent.

Federal law prohibits super PACs and political campaigns from coordinating, but the effect is a sort of good cop, bad cop routine.

“The role that super PACs often play is to do the dirty work for a campaign,” said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.

“You don’t have to have the campaign and the PAC sitting in the same room and explicitly coordinating these things for some level of implicit coordination,” he said. “It’s just sort of understood that’s the way it’s going to go. The really extreme and negative messages are not going to come from the campaign directly.”

That certainly has played out in the Lee-McMullin race, which has shaped up to be one of the most intriguing in the country. The latest Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll shows Lee with a four-point margin over McMullin with many voters yet to make up their minds.

Evan McMullin, Sen. Mike Lee locked in nasty battle for Senate. What does the latest poll show?

Big spenders for Lee

Utahns will have plenty of information to sift through as the advertising onslaught ramps up over the next few weeks. County clerks will start mailing out ballots Tuesday.

At least four outside groups are hitting the candidates hard — Club for Growth Action, Liberty Champions and Crypto Freedom against McMullin, and Freedom and Put Utah First against Lee.

The conservative Club for Growth Action has spent $2.2 million in ads targeting McMullin, and intends to spend more in the days leading to the Nov. 8 election.

David McIntosh, Club for Growth president, said candidates like Lee are best suited to tell voters the positive things about themselves, leaving groups like his the role of “defining the difference” between candidates. Lee, he said, is a true conservative champion in the Senate.

“Sometimes it’s what they call negative ads, sometimes it’s a contrast between two (candidates),” he said. “Our role typically comes down to giving the voters the rest of the story so that they know what the difference is between Mike and Evan so they can base their vote on being fully informed about those differences.”

Super PACs don’t contribute directly to candidates or parties and can therefore raise funds from individuals, corporations and other groups without any legal limit on donation size. That gives them the ability to pump large amounts of money into campaigns for or against candidates while not being associated with them.

Karpowitz said PACs often are more concerned about national politics or partisan balance in Congress and far less concerned about developing healthy politics in Utah or meeting the needs of voters in the state.

McIntosh said Club for Growth is investing in the Utah race “because no other group is coming in as a super PAC to support Mike and he is taking incoming from McMullin’s super PAC.”

McMullin sued the Club for Growth and several Utah television stations earlier this month over an ad he says was “doctored” to make it sound like he had called all Republicans racists and bigots. McIntosh defended the ad, saying McMullin isn’t the person he says he is despite his claims to be independent. He said he wants to “censor” the TV stations to cover up his past statements about the GOP.

“He’s frankly acting like a Democrat and he’s attacked the Republican Party whenever possible,” said McIntosh, a former Indiana congressman.

The Crypto Freedom PAC, which is allied with Club for Growth, has spent almost $250,000 against McMullin. Club for Growth Action has given more than $2 million to the PAC.

Another group, Liberty Champions, based out of a post office box in Hudson, Wisconsin, has spent $1 million in support of Lee. Ocean Star International, a Great Salt Lake brine shrimp company based in Snowville, Utah, is its largest donor, having donated $200,000, according to FEC records. Texans for a Conservative Majority gave $50,000.

Big spenders for McMullin

Put Utah First, a Salt Lake City-based super PAC made up of independents, Republicans and Democrats, has spent nearly $2.6 million in the race, including nearly $2 million in ads targeting Lee and about $700,000 supporting McMullin.

The PAC has a billboard on I-15 quoting Lee saying, “To my Mormon friends ... think of him as Captain Moroni,” next to a picture of former President Donald Trump. It’s a comparison Lee made ahead of the 2020 election.

Chase Christiansen, an adviser to Put Utah First, said the group believes McMullin will be able to work with both parties to “finally get good things done for Utah.” Washington politics is broken and Lee is part of the problem, he said.

“We are deeply concerned by his role in trying to subvert the Electoral College and overturn the 2020 election as well as by his many extreme votes blocking important legislation,” Christiansen said. Utahns, he said, deserve an independent senator who won’t take contributions from corporate PACs, and who got to Washington beholden to special interest contributors or to either political party.

Put Utah First’s top donors include Reid Hoffman, a billionaire venture capitalist and LinkedIn co-founder, who gave $250,000, according to FEC filings. John Cumming, chairman of Park City-based Powdr Corporation, one of the largest ski resort operators in North America, contributed $100,000, as did former GOP Utah House Speaker Kevin Garn.

Do attack ads work?

Political observers in Utah like to say negative campaigning doesn’t work in the state but that’s not necessarily true. Karpowitz said attack ads can work.

“People are often startled by and pay attention to negative information in a way that they don’t to positive information,” he said.

But there’s also a flip side.

“These kinds of messages can also turn people off, either to the campaign generally or to politics or to a candidate if they go too far over the line. If they’re too outlandish or too extreme in their messages, that can be problematic,” Karpowitz said.

Negative ads can especially be effective against McMullin because he has a harder job than Lee of defining himself for voters, Karpowitz. Aside from his 2016 run for president, people don’t know him as well. Outside groups, he said, want to persuade voters to think about him in a certain way, while he has to convince them to pick him even though he doesn’t have an “R” by his name.

Ads aimed at Lee also have a specific purpose.

“They’re especially trying to sow doubt in the minds of Republicans who might be wavering in their support of Mike Lee,” Karpowitz said.

Negative campaign impact on Utahns

If Utah voters had a choice, an overwhelming majority would prefer political campaigns not run any ads at all as opposed to mostly negative ones.

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A Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found 78% of Utahns would choose no ads, while 11% would choose mostly negative ads given a choice between the two. Another 10% had no opinion.

Self-identified moderate voters in the survey were more likely to opt for no campaign advertising than were respondents who consider themselves “very conservative” or “very liberal.” A higher percentage of women also preferred no ads to negative ads.

Whether negative campaigning sways voters one way or another is debatable but it apparently doesn’t turn them off enough to stay away from the ballot box. The poll found 66% of Utahns say negative campaign tactics don’t influence their participation in elections. Another 17% say negative ads make them less likely to vote, while 16% said negative ads make them more likely to vote.

The survey shows a slight difference between Utahns who identified themselves as Democrats or Republicans. Seven in 10 Democrats said negative campaigning has no influence compared to 6 in 10 Republicans. Also, 20% of women say those tactics make them less likely to vote compared to 15% of men.

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