SALT LAKE CITY — A $100,000 contribution from the Republican Governors Association toward the Utah GOP's effort to boost caucus turnout should have been rejected, failed gubernatorial candidate Morgan Philpot said.
Philpot said it was "inappropriate but not a surprise" that state GOP Chairman Thomas Wright accepted the help from a group backing Gov. Gary Herbert's re-election.
The money represented the largest single contribution toward the $300,000 the state Republican Party spent to urge GOP voters to participate in caucus meetings last March.
"The game is stacked," Philpot said, adding that all voters should be concerned that the governor, the party and an outside interest group were "working in concert for the perpetuation of power."
But Wright said that wasn't the intent of taking the money. "If the increased participation helps some candidates over another, that was an unintended consequence," the party chairman said.
Wright pointed out that the party's goal was to increase the caucus turnout to 100,000 but 130,000 Republicans ended up participating. He said the contribution from the GOP governors was appreciated.
"I think their goals overlapped ours," Wright said, adding he would have taken money from any group, even FreedomWorks, which endorsed Sen. Orrin Hatch's Republican primary challenger, Dan Liljenquist.
"I was no respecter of donors," he said.
Unlike Herbert, who beat Philpot and other challengers at last month's Republican convention, Hatch fell short of the support he needed to avoid a runoff election against Liljenquist in June.
Another big chunk of the caucus effort budget was picked up by The Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care, which contributed a total of $175,000 to the Utah GOP over the past year.
The Associated Press reported last month that the national trade group was attempting to help Hatch's re-election bid by backing the effort to increase caucus attendance.
This year's record number of caucus attendees, who also received a call to participate from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was seen as diluting the impact of the tea party supporters responsible for unseating former Sen. Bob Bennett at the 2010 GOP convention.
It was Herbert's campaign that brought the Republican governors group and the Utah GOP together after the party started soliciting contributions for the caucus effort.
"Did it help us? I'm sure it helped getting mainstream Republicans out of the caucus meetings," which benefited Herbert, his campaign manager, Scott Ericson, said.
Ericson questioned how anyone could argue against the higher turnout. "It helps the Republicans from the top of the ticket to the bottom of the ticket," he said. "It benefits all Utahns in the end."
State Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis said the contributions to the GOP effort were a "wonderful bit of chicanery" by the candidates who were helped.
"If you don't like the voters you have, you go out and get some new voters and you do it in a way nobody knows quite what happened," Dabakis said. "Their fingerprints aren't on it."
He said that if the groups were only interested in increasing voter participation in Utah caucuses, the Democrats would have seen some cash, too. Even without financial help, though, Dabakis said the Democrats also saw more voters turn up at the caucus meetings.
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said the caucus effort — and the contributions that funded it — would likely never have happened had Bennett not been ousted two years ago.
That put incumbents like Herbert and Hatch on notice, he said. "They have such advantages as incumbents," Burbank said. "Their only risk was they would have a small group turn out who didn't want to see any incumbents elected."