Utah’s competitive Senate Republican primary just got dirtier.

A shadowy political action committee bombarded state GOP delegates with negative ads over the last week. The flurry of direct mail and text messages attacked U.S. Senate candidates Rep. John Curtis and Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs with tabloid-ready headlines emphasizing disloyalty to former President Donald Trump.

Hometown Freedom Action Network, an opaque super PAC based out of Washington, D.C., was behind the push. It spent more than $17,000 to oppose Staggs’ convention bid, and more than $2,500 opposing Curtis, for a total of nearly $20,200 in the first two weeks of April.

The group seems to have timed its contributions and expenditures to fall just after the March 31 reporting deadline, which conceals who is funding the effort until after the convention and primary elections are over.

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The ad buys comes less than two weeks before Curtis, Staggs, and eight other Republican candidates, including former Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, face off at the state nominating convention which will play a significant role in determining who appears on the June primary ballot.

While the campaign trail has been largely characterized by cordial candidate town halls, the messaging tactics coming out of D.C. firms, and appearing in national media, have been anything but civil.

Negative campaigning in the U.S. Senate race

One of the texts and mailers recently sent out to the state’s 4,000 Republican delegates highlighted Staggs’ early support for the presidential campaign of Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“Betraying Trump is not MAGA,” the ad says.

Another accused Staggs of being “woke” for implementing anti-bias police training and adding “inclusion” to the name of Riverton’s “Public Events Committee” following the death of George Floyd.

A pair of texts, delivered on Tuesday and on April 10, employed a mixture of true and false statements about Curtis’ voting record to frame him as lukewarm toward the former president.

One text cites a 2016 Tweet where Curtis said he would not vote for either Trump or Hillary Clinton and falsely claims Curtis “led the charge” in Trump’s 2021 impeachment. Curtis voted “no” in Trump’s impeachment trial following the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

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“John Curtis was never with President Trump, and never will be,” the text says.

Each ad calls on delegates to vote against Staggs and Curtis at the April convention.

“Lies and smears aren’t the ‘Utah way,’” Staggs told the Deseret News in a statement. “I chose the convention path because the delegates see through DC dark money PACs, study, and search for truth.”

He continued: “I’m grateful for the outpouring of support my campaign has received from delegates hungry for an America First agenda in Washington.”

What do delegates think of negative ads?

Tim LeBaron, a state delegate from St. George, received Hometown Freedom Action Network’s texts for both candidates. He said as a delegate he has gotten used to being flooded with outside messages. But he considers this meddling in Utah campaigns “frustrating, annoying and inappropriate.”

“I’m looking for the right person who’s going to do the best job. And negative campaigning doesn’t help me understand that,” he said.

Staggs has done all he can to carve out a lane as the most Trump-aligned candidate in the race, courting the endorsement of some of the national figures most associated with the MAGA brand, including Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., and Arizona Senate candidate Kari Lake.

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In response to the claim that Staggs treated Riverton police officers unfairly during the Black Lives Matter riots of 2020, the Utah Fraternal Order of Police decried the “false narrative” and reiterated their support for Staggs.

“Mr. Staggs has always been an advocate for law enforcement, for this reason, the Utah Fraternal Order of Police unapologetically gave Trent Staggs our endorsement.,” the statement published on April 13 said. “We continue to stand with Mr. Staggs(.)”

Utah Senate campaigns use national media to criticize opponents

The attempt to describe Staggs as “woke” first appeared in dueling hit pieces published in national conservative news outlets in March. First, Breitbart published a story criticizing Wilson of supporting the Utah Compact on Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in 2021. The next day a story bashing Staggs for creating a more “equitable” police department appeared in National Review.

Utah Senate candidates have continued to lob dirt-filled headlines at each other via national, and international, outlets such as the Daily Mail, Fox News and the Daily Caller, which has posted multiple stories highlighting Curtis’ campaign contributions from energy groups, his stock trading and his refusal to officially endorse Trump for president in 2024.

In 2020, Curtis campaigned for Trump in three different states. Curtis also ranks high on scorecards measuring how often lawmakers voted with President Donald Trump.

Does negative campaigning work?

The race to replace Sen. Mitt Romney has already attracted significant levels of fundraising and personal and PAC investments, with candidates shelling out millions of their own money, while millions more pour in from national political action committees like the Club for Growth.

While the Senate election might quickly become one of most expensive in recent memory, the attempt to target delegates before the convention is “beyond normal,” veteran Utah political consultant Chuck Warren said.

But negative attack ads coming from super PACs seem to have lost some of their impact in a time when highly-informed delegates are saturated with campaign messaging directly from the candidates on social media, Warren said.

“I just don’t think it has the same power it did 10-20 years ago,” he said.

Be that as it may, super PACs continue to believe that negative campaign ads work, said Jay Goodliffe, a research fellow at Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.

“Super PACs are much more willing to run the negative ads to attack an opponent,” Goodliffe said. “Candidates like to define themselves in positive ads and how they stand on issues. And they are happy for the outside group to take on the negative role to attack the candidates.”

Election timeline

The Republican state convention will be held on April 27. Candidates who receive more than 40% of delegate votes, or who have gathered enough verified signatures, will appear on the primary ballot on June 25.

The GOP nominee who emerges from the primary will face off against the nominees from other registered political parties in the Nov. 5 general election.

Other Republican candidates, besides those already named, include Moxie Pest Control CEO Jason Walton, conservative political adviser Carolyn Phippen, attorney Brent Hatch, certified public accountant Josh Randall, Bookroo founder Chandler Tanner, Abraham Lincoln impersonator Brian Jenkins and former piano tuner Jeremy Friedbaum.

The Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate in Utah include mountaineer Caroline Gleich, Archie Williams III and Laird Hamblin.