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SALT LAKE CITY — In a surprising development with less than a week to go until Election Day, campaign finance reports released Tuesday show Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall is outraising her opponent, Sen. Luz Escamilla.
Mendenhall has raised $301,347 between Aug. 3 and Oct. 26 ahead of the general election — over $112,000 more than what Escamilla raised in the same time period, $189,081.
That’s a stark shift from before the August primary, when Escamilla outraised Mendenhall by more than $85,000, but Mendenhall still came out of the primary as the top vote-getter.
In total, Mendenhall has raised $422,656 throughout this year’s entire campaign season, outpacing Escamilla’s combined total of $395,741.
Mendenhall is also outspending Escamilla, with a total of $389,345 spent leading up to the general election compared to Escamilla’s $366,794 spent. Mendenhall also has slightly more cash on-hand, with $39,892 unspent compared to Escamilla’s $28,946 unspent.
However, Escamilla seems to be attracting more individual donors than Mendenhall. While Mendenhall collected from 800 donors since Aug. 3, Escamilla had contributions from 1,284 donors.
The finance totals indicate Mendenhall’s campaign has found more financial backing while Escamilla’s appears to have more individual supporters willing to contribute money at smaller amounts.
Still, both candidates note money isn’t everything when it comes to Salt Lake City elections.
“This feels like another sign that the momentum we started building in the primary is still growing,” Mendenhall said Tuesday after campaign finance totals were released. “It’s humbling, but energizing. You don’t buy votes, you earn them, which is why I am walking our neighborhoods and knocking on voters’ doors just about every day at this point to engage voters directly and earn their support.”
Escamilla’s campaign manager, Rudy Miera, pointed out Escamilla’s fundraising has relied mostly on small-dollar donors.
“Our grassroots campaign has exceeded our fundraising goals, and we feel our campaign is in the financial position needed to finish this campaign strong,” he said.
Donations of less than $100 make up about 69% of Escamilla’s fundraising, according to her campaign.
Recent polls have placed Mendenhall as a front-runner in the election — though polls have been wrong, as recently demonstrated in the primary. Surveys initially placed former Sen. Jim Dabakis as a front-runner in the primary, but Mendenhall took a surprising lead and held it while Dabakis lost to Escamilla for second place.
Mendenhall’s primary lead also proved races aren’t always about money. The primary’s top fundraiser, David Ibarra, raked in the most cash, reporting a total of more than $437,000 raised, but he took fifth place in the primary with only 9% of the vote. Since then, Ibarra has endorsed Mendenhall. Financial disclosures show Ibarra has contributed $3,560, the maximum amount allowed, to her campaign.
In the primary, even though she raised just a fraction of what other campaigns did, Mendenhall still gained traction among primary voters, running what she has called a campaign not focused on “who can raise the most money,” but one that is about “connecting with the community.”
According to Mendenhall’s expenditure reports, her campaign has spent thousands on a variety of strategies, including Facebook and Google advertising, research consulting, literature and mailer printing, and more.
Escamilla has spent thousands on multiple forms of advertising, like Facebook, as well as printing and consulting, though not to the same extent as Mendenhall.
Mendenhall has previously said she’s “frankly delighted” when she sees money being spent on billboards while she’s running a “sophisticated strategy that is engaging voters in a substantive way.”
“When we set the budget for our general election campaign, we had to be realistic about what we expected to be spent against us — not just by our opponent’s campaign, but by those supporting her candidacy independently,” Mendenhall said. “When you factor in the value of 2 1⁄2 months of free advertisements on dozens of billboards, and others supporting our opponent, this feels like a wash. This is why we worked as hard as we did to match every dollar we thought would be spent against us, and it looks like we accomplished just that.”
Billboards, as they have been in years past, continue to loom over the Salt Lake City mayor’s race. In past years, city officials, including former Mayor Ralph Becker, were considered an enemy of the billboard industry, fighting them as visual blights to the city’s mountainous backdrop. In 2015, Utah billboard company Reagan Outdoor Advertising donated billboard space to his opponents. This year, it appears Mendenhall is in the same boat.
Escamilla’s face is on several billboards throughout Salt Lake City. Since January, Reagan Outdoor Advertising’s political action committee, Utahns for Independent Government, has donated more than $162,000 of free billboard space to candidates. Political action committee contributions have been criticized as a way for groups to skirt the city’s campaign donation limit of $3,650 per person, but they’re not illegal as long as they don’t coordinate with campaigns. Escamilla has said she has had not had contact with Reagan.
On the other hand, Miera said Escamilla’s campaign staffers have watched Mendenhall’s campaign “dumping dollars on mail, television and online ads” while also taking money from Gov. Gary Herbert’s leadership political action committee, totaling $3,500. While the PAC also contributed $2,000 to Escamilla’s campaign, Miera said Escamilla’s campaign returned it.
“So the final numbers are not surprising and we still feel confident we’re in a strong position to win this election,” Miera said.
Escamilla has attributed her donations to her campaign’s grassroots efforts and no “self-funding.” In an email to supporters sent out Tuesday, Escamilla pushed for more donations through the last week before the election.
“Anything we can raise between now and next Tuesday will help us contact hundreds or even thousands of more people,” the campaign email stated. “And having advanced through the primary by just over 400 votes, I know firsthand how a handful of votes can make all the difference.”
Among the notable donations to Escamilla’s campaign is Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s political action committee, which contributed $3,540. Biskupski recently endorsed Escamilla in the race.
Tuesday’s campaign filings showed this year’s Salt Lake City mayor’s race has already surpassed the roughly $1.5 million candidates raised throughout the entire contentious 2015 competition to lead Utah’s capital city.
Combined with the more than $1.47 million raised ahead of the crowded, eight-candidate primary, Escamilla and Mendenhall have together raised a total of $1.96 million for this year’s race.
It somewhat compares to — but does not surpass — the most expensive race in Salt Lake City history. The crowded 2007 race for former Mayor Rocky Anderson’s empty seat drew in more than $2.4 million from all the candidates combined, raised ahead of both the primary and general election.