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Washington • Outside political groups spent more than $1.5 million trying to influence the outcome of Utah's Republican caucuses, with one fighting to end Sen. Orrin Hatch's career and five other groups seeking to give him one last term in office.
The result was an unprecedented barrage of negative ads for this early stage in the race, and these groups are just getting started.
"There's no doubt we'll be involved in the campaign moving forward," said Russ Walker, who leads FreedomWorks for America, a tea party-fueled super political action committee opposing Hatch.
FreedomWorks spent $649,000, more than any other outside group, recruiting its own delegates and sending out mailers in a campaign that at times overshadowed the efforts of the men running against Hatch. But the cadre of super PACs and political nonprofits supporting Hatch actually outspent FreedomWorks by more than $220,000.
The biggest is Freedom Path, run by a group of political operatives who met Hatch when they worked with him at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which supports incumbent Republicans. Freedom Path has disclosed $301,000 in spending and a spokesman said it spent another $270,000 on TV ads, but the group refuses to identify its board of directors and uses IRS rules to keep its donors hidden.
Other outside groups supporting Hatch include the American Action Network, the National Rifle Association, the American College of Radiology Association and Strong Utah, a small super PAC run by a Salt Lake advertising agency.
Hatch had more super PAC support, and on caucus night he was able to turn FreedomWorks into a political liability for his opponents.
Some attending the neighborhood meetings criticized the group, piggybacking on complaints by the Hatch team that FreedomWorks is an out-of-state organization attempting to interfere in a Utah election.
By all accounts, it appears Hatch had more supporters elected as delegates than any of his nine Republican opponents on Thursday.
"I think FreedomWorks' effort out here failed miserably," said Hatch's campaign manager Dave Hansen. "And I think they basically offended a lot of people."
Hansen said FreedomWorks, a Washington, D.C., organization led by former House Speaker Dick Armey, made a few strategic errors by allowing Walker, who does not live in Utah, to be the face of its Utah campaign and by taking such a public role in opposing the senator.
He noted the outside groups supporting Hatch shunned interviews or public demonstrations, letting their attack ads, primarily focused on former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, speak for themselves.
"The people with the loudest voice was the Hatch campaign and then Freedom Path and FreedomWorks," said Liljenquist, Hatch's most prominent rival. "My campaign, in particular, was rather disadvantaged."
Both Liljenquist and Hansen said the delegate contest in some caucuses turned into Hatch vs. FreedomWorks affairs, which Walker said is nothing but political spin.
Attendance at both the Democratic and Republican caucuses was unusually high this year, spurred in part by the LDS Church encouraging its members to attend. Walker argued that many people who went to the meetings and were elected delegates had never heard of FreedomWorks or seen any of its ads.
"They voted what they knew, which was Orrin Hatch," he said, arguing that their allegiance to the senator is not set in stone. "These delegates are soft, influenceable and they want to learn. We will be educating them."
FreedomWorks has lambasted Hatch for votes in favor of the Wall Street bailout and the Children's Health Insurance Program, questioning whether he is a true conservative.
"Orrin's going to have to answer for some of the votes he's taken," said Walker.
He also bristled at complaints that FreedomWorks is an out-of-state organization. He said the group has 15,000 Utah members and he noted that the vast majority of Hatch's campaign contributions also come from out of state. The senator has spent millions on his campaign so far.
"You can make the argument that the big out-of-state money and influence is on the Hatch side," said Walker.
Hansen acknowledged that the senator has raised money from around the nation, but said he still has more Utah contributions and more Utah donors than any other group or candidate.
FreedomWorks' super PAC has received only $1,050 in direct contributions from Utahns. But it's impossible to know how much money Utahns might have donated to its parent organization, which doesn't have to disclose donors but can shift their money to its super PAC.
Liljenquist is amazed at the amount of money spent on the campaign so far, and said that while he "appreciates the intentions" of FreedomWorks, he wishes all of the outside groups would get out of the race and spend their money elsewhere.
"My preference is that both FreedomWorks and Freedom Path get out of the way," Liljenquist said. "This is a stage where we can make the case to 4,000 people directly and we think it should be a positive case," he said, referring to Republican delegates.
Hatch has made a similar plea, but the candidates are not going to get their wish. Not only is FreedomWorks vowing to move ahead, but Freedom Path just released its latest ad, a television spot touting the role Hatch and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, have played in promoting a balanced budget amendment.
The delegates will gather April 21 for the state Republican Convention. If one candidate gets 60 percent or more of the delegate vote, he'll claim the GOP nomination. If not, the top two will face off in a June primary election.
Super PACs and political nonprofits have spent more than $1.5 million on Utah's Senate race so far, with most of it supporting Sen. Orrin Hatch.
FreedomWorks (Opposes Hatch) • $649,000
Freedom Path (Supports Hatch) • $571,000
American Action Network (Supports Hatch) • $200,000
American College of Radiology Association (Supports Hatch) • $77,000
NRA (Supports Hatch) • $13,500
Strong Utah (Supports Hatch) • $8,000
Source: FEC, Freedom Path, American Action Network