SALT LAKE CITY — Three candidates and two political action committees are making the Republican primary vote in Utah's already unique election to replace former Rep. Jason Chaffetz even more interesting because of what it says about politics.
• It's about relationships and spin.
• It's about playing in the gray areas of messaging to win voters, sometimes taking things out of context and manipulating facts.
• It's about using reports in media and the credibility of news organizations to gain an advantage.
• It's about money — who has the most to spend, where it comes from and ultimately, how it is used.
That's not all politics is about. There are candidates who have genuine desires to serve their constituents and make a difference, and that might describe all who are vying for the 3rd Congressional District seat from all parties. But the path to get there is rocky and proves challenging for the voter who needs to cut through the noise of the campaign season to find the best person for the job.
John Curtis, Chris Herrod and Tanner Ainge are running in the Republican primary each hoping to be their party's choice to face off against other parties' representatives in the general election. The primary election is Tuesday, but mail-in ballots have been coming in for two weeks, as has money now approaching nearly $1 million in spending, from super PACs unbound by any campaign finance limits.
Two super PACs, the Conservative Utah PAC in support of Ainge and seeded with $250,000 from the candidate's family, and Club4Growth supporting Herrod with a large national war chest, offer both help and cover for the candidates.
Neither Ainge nor Herrod nor their campaign teams can have any input into what the super PACS are doing. Negative ads, positive ads, attacks, supporting statements — whatever — there is a legal wall of separation.
Critics of the current system note that with the free flow of money and no direct accountability to the candidate, the focus of the race can spin in different directions based on the tug and pull of outside money.
It has muddied the waters this year as Curtis has made his claims of negative advertising by the other two candidates a big part of his campaign. Are the ads negative? Both Ainge and Herrod's camps have said no. The candidates say they are simply challenging their opponent's record and the ads reflect that. Other political insiders say some of the ads are negative, but not compared to what seems to be the national norm. But if the ads are in fact negative, they say it is the super PACS doing the dirty work.
This hits media as well, including the Deseret News. An advertisement this past week stated the following: "Chris Herrod is the Ronald Reagan in the 3rd Congressional District Race." It was displayed under the Deseret News banner with a date, as if to indicate it's the point of view of the Deseret News. It's not. The Deseret News does not endorse candidates.
The "Reagan" headline was from an op-ed (an opinion piece) by a Herrod supporter that ran in the Deseret News. We've run op-eds from each of the candidates and from others, showing a variety of opinions about the race and the candidates. That's what newspapers do.
But deception becomes a part of politics as super PACs and others manipulate voters by stating half-truths or making outright misrepresentations. This ad states it was paid for by National Horizon — "Fighting for Your Conservative Values" — and does a disservice to the candidate, the newspaper, and ultimately the voter.
News decisions can also be subject to criticism. We repeatedly measure and check ourselves against any allegation of bias. As editor of the Deseret News I have associations with many in the community who support each of the three Republican candidates as well as candidates from the other parties.
Does that impact coverage? We hope it makes us further dedicated to getting the story right. We're accountable.
In some cases, where the association is a close association, I recuse myself from the direction of the news stories, leaving the work and decision-making to newsroom editors working closely with their reporters to cover the election. Our newsroom reporters and editors do the same if there is a conflict of interest.
One such conversation happened this week as Brian West, the news director for the Deseret News in our multi-platform newsroom, rightly questioned a decision I made relating to the characterization of negative ads. My focus was making sure we are asking tough questions. His focus was making sure the questions weren't themselves skewing the coverage.
It's the kind of back-and-forth we have in our newsroom and we try to create an environment where we can help and challenge each other.
Ultimately all this speaks to the need for the public to get engaged in the election process, taking time to really understand the actual views of each candidate by following news coverage, listening to debates, attending campaign events and then voting. Educated voters can overcome many of our system's weaknesses.