It doesn't matter if it works or it doesn't. It's the damage it does to the system. —State GOP Chairman Thomas Wright
SALT LAKE CITY — How bad was the negative advertising in the attorney general's primary race? Well, even state GOP Chairman Thomas Wright is saying enough is enough.
"When you end up where you did in that race, yeah, I think it got negative. I don't think that's what voters want," Wright said Wednesday. "It doesn't matter if it works or it doesn't. It's the damage it does to the system."
He said attack ads, like those that surfaced in the Republican run-off between John Swallow and Sean Reyes in the attorney general's race, result in voters getting so fed up with politics that they don't bother casting a ballot.
"It's not OK when it crosses the line and everybody knows where that line is," Wright said. "I encourage all candidates, Republican, Democratic, independent, to run clean, positive and productive campaigns and make Americans proud to vote."
Swallow won a resounding 68 percent of the vote, with Reyes winning 32 percent. Reyes said he lost to Swallow, the chief deputy attorney general, because of some $140,000 in last-minute radio and television commercials against him paid for by a Nevada-based political action committee.
"There really is no place for these types of malicious attack ads and involvement by outside organizations," Reyes told KSL Newsradio's Doug Wright. "It can have a devastating impact."
But Swallow said he, too, was a victim of negative campaigning, citing mailers sent out by a political action committee linked to Democrats. Swallow said neither he nor his campaign was involved in the anti-Reyes ads, but he could not vouch for his consultants.
"They can blame it on whatever they want to. I got hit probably as hard as he got hit. I think it cancelled out," Swallow said. He said Reyes likely hurt himself by taking legal action against the PAC that paid for the ads as well as Swallow and his campaign.
Swallow said he stayed positive in the $250,000 worth of advertising purchased by his campaign. "In this campaign, all I could "control is what I did and what I spent," he said.
That's the problem, Wright said, and not just with Swallow.
"With super PACs, it's so easy for people to say, 'I have no control," the GOP chairman said. "The game of, 'I didn't have anything to do with it' ... It's not OK and it's the worst of American politics right now and it needs to stop."
State Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis agreed with Wright that something needs to be done to stop the influence of the so-called super PACs on elections, especially now that some have figured out how to avoid disclosing their donors.
"Our elections are being bought off by out-of-state, anonymous interests. It is a terrible thing for our political process," Dabakis said. Still, he said, there's no question negative ads work "especially when they come in slyly."
University of Utah political science professor Tim Chambless said even though the negative advertising appeared to work in the attorney general's primary race, it could backfire in the general election.
Reyes endorsed Swallow, but Chambless said that might not be enough to keep his supporters from voting in November for the Democrat in the race, Weber County Attorney Dee Smith.
"We may very well see a significant backlash of voters," Chambless said. "We know very, very often people vote the way they did in eighth grade. They vote on emotion" as much as about the issues.
Voters who carry a grudge from a primary race sometimes just stay home on Election Day, he said, but this year's general election features the match-up between President Barack Obama and Utah favorite son Mitt Romney at the top of the ticket.
That makes it more likely Swallow will be hurt at the polls by "guilt by association," with the negative advertising that dominated the intraparty race, Chambless said. "All they know is Smith did not irritate or anger them" in the primary election."
Smith said he wasn't sure whether he would benefit from the primary, but has no plans to reach out to Reyes supporters.
"Time will tell. But it's hard for me to say at this point," Smith said. "The only thing I would ask people to do is look at my record and look and my qualifications and make a decision based on who they think is best qualified."
Reyes wasn't the only loser in Tuesday's primary who said he was done in by attack ads.
Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, said a PAC that doesn't have to report where its money is coming from came in and spent some $30,000 in his race, more money than he was able to raise.
Daw, who lost to Dana Layton by about 350 votes, said the answer is more disclosure.
"There's always cockroaches. You're never going to stomp out all the cockroaches, but if you have enough sunshine it keeps them in the corners. In my case, I would love to know who's spending that kind of money."