How Greg Hughes Changed the Playbook to Become Speaker

The old tried and true method of running for House or Senate leadership is to give money from your personal campaign account to fellow party candidates in the hopes that your financial help will translate into leadership votes.

Giving money isn’t determinative, but since other leadership candidates are doing it, the wise thing – so your leadership supporters, oftentimes lobbyists – tell you is that you should do likewise.

2014 speaker candidate Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace, followed that road this past election. As majority leader Dee was the second most powerful House member, behind retiring Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo.

All told, Dee donated $14,000 to around 10 GOP House candidates up to the November election.

(Final 2014 campaign finance reports are not due until the first of the New Year, so Dee and others noted in this story may have given more campaign donations the final two weeks before the November general election.)

House Assistant Majority Whip Don Ipson, R-St. George, was running for majority leader this year.

Ipson really followed the traditional road. He donated nearly $20,000 to 33 different GOP House candidates this year, most coming in $500 checks. You can read Ipson’s final report detailing those checks here.

But both Dee and Ipson lost their leadership races.

Instead, Speaker-elect Greg Hughes, R-Draper, and Majority Leader-elect Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, gave relatively little cash support to their colleagues.

And herein lies a tale – and maybe a new way of running for leadership in the Utah House.

Of course, every leadership election is different, to some degree.

And the 2014 top contests were unique in this way: A near majority inside the GOP House caucus will be newbies – having three years experience or less in the House.

Hughes and Dunnigan have told UtahPolicy that they targeted those newcomers, and those just leaving their freshman years.

The new kids on the House block clearly decided the leadership races this year.

Still, Hughes and Dunnigan could have played the same old “give money away” game.

They didn’t.

They got down and dirty, so to speak, and spent time with the newcomers – walked the neighborhoods with the candidates. Rubbed elbows.

“I decided early on that I wanted to (run a speaker’s race) that added some value to colleagues’ campaigns,” Hughes told UtahPolicy on Monday.

“I just don’t feel right giving someone a check” and expecting a leadership vote in return.

“I genuinely wanted to help (the House GOP candidates) win. So we started what I call Hughes Howling Commandoes – they are young, bright people, headed up by my nephew – and our idea was to drop into a race, worked the grassroots neighborhoods, and make a difference.”

So Hughes set up paid neighborhood walking groups.

And his campaign reports show those in-kind donations.

Hughes spent $2,333 on several campaign education events – teaching new and old candidates how to run for the Legislature, introducing them to the ropes.

He sponsored fund raising events for other candidates at the Alta Club – Utah’s old boy private club on the corner of State and South Temple streets, across the street from Utah Republican Party headquarters.

He spent $2,500 in straight campaign donations to House GOP candidates, as Dee and Ipson did. “I only gave money to candidates who specifically asked for a cash donation – I limited to those requests and was glad to help out.”

But he also spent $924 in buying campaign signs for several new candidates.

And his pre-general election report shows he spent $2,168.85 in hiring the Commandoes to “canvass” – or walk the district – with several GOP House candidates.

That’s the shoe-leather work that is most tedious, and often disliked – in campaigning for a Utah House seat.

 In part, Hughes’ response to the traditional moneyed route to leadership was a function of the situation he found himself in earlier this year.

Hughes has told UtahPolicy that he expected the 2014 House majority leadership races to be a bit of a bore – as whip, Hughes believed he would move up to majority leader as Dee ran for the speakership and won.

But Ipson threw everyone a curve when he announced last spring that he was running for majority leader.

Such an early announcement for a leadership race is basically unknown.

More so in the Senate than the House, usually leadership candidates play their cards close to the vest. You’re running, but not really running, through the spring and summer.

Hughes had an early decision: He could fight Ipson for the majority spot (but Dunnigan also wanted that slot) or he could try to stay whip (but Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, wanted that spot) or he could challenge Dee for speaker.

None of Hughes’ choices appeared that promising.

Finally, the former boxer decided to jump into the big ring – run for speaker against Dee, who started out as the favorite.

Hughes had another problem.

Dee started his 2014 re-election to his Ogden-based district with more than $90,000 cash. Dee had to spend some of that on re-election, sure, but a lot of it could go to the speaker’s race, as well.

Hughes started 2014 with $13,000.

“I’ve never wanted, felt comfortable, with a big campaign war chest. I especially didn’t want to just hand out money” in running for leadership.

Both men could fundraise well. But it would help Hughes if he could figure out another way to run for speaker effectively without having to spend $15,000 or $20,000 on the speaker’s race while also funding his Draper City-based House contest.

By UtahPolicy’s count, Hughes spent around $7,000 on his speaker’s race (although getting House Republicans elected goes beyond that consideration).

Dunnigan spent just short of $4,000 on his majority leader’s race – in cash donations to House GOP candidates.

Dee spent $14,000 and Ipson spent $20,000.

So it was $34,000 for the men who lost the speakership and majority leader, respectively.

And it was $11,000 for the winning speaker and majority leader – a third as much.

Money talks in politics.

But in the House’s 2014 top majority leadership races, it talked much less than in previous years.

“I want members of our (GOP House) caucus to be able to vote their conscience on tough issues,” said Hughes.

“I want them to know that some people have their backs, that they don’t have to worry about offending a special interest and have it taken out on them at election.

“They shouldn’t have to worry about a (political) backlash; that we will be there to help with their campaigns, if need be.”