ROY — The influence of special interest money in Washington D.C. figures big in Eric Eliason's U.S. House run.
More specifically, he points his finger at Rep. Rob Bishop, the Republican incumbent, as chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, suggesting that donations from corporate interests factor in the conservative lawmaker's decisions. Committee chairmen raise big money for their parties, Eliason said, and "how do they do that? They do it by obliging special interests."
Eliason decided to vie under the banner of the United Utah Party — not as a Democrat or Republican — because the year-old alternative party more closely aligns with his philosophy. Not too far to the right, not too far to the left. He calls himself a moderate, even if he tends to vote more Republican, and says affiliation with the new group allows him to focus more on the concerns of the people, not the dictates of political party leadership.
"I've been unaffiliated, always unaffiliated. There wasn't really a home, a place to run," he said before a recent campaign event at the Southwest Branch library in Roy, one of several such gatherings he's held around the 1st District. He doesn't want to have to answer to political party bosses, as would be required running under the banner of the two main parties, he maintains, but rather, wants to "represent the people of Utah."
Eliason has been stumping since last February, when he announced his upstart third-party bid to unseat Bishop. He's gotten attention. An unconventional ad last month calling on voters to "release the (Rob) bishop," a gentle jab at the incumbent and play on Mormon terminology, garnered a lot of publicity.
And he also secured a spot in the Oct. 17 debate between the 1st District U.S. House hopefuls after mustering 6.6 percent support in polling. To be sure, he trailed Bishop (51 percent) and Democrat Lee Castillo (15.8 percent), but still, he's only one of two third-party hopefuls in a federal race to make the stage of a Utah Debate Commission debate since the group's inception in 2013.
For his part, Bishop, Eliason's primary target in campaigning, bristles at the suggestion he's somehow beholden to special interests, a charge foes seem to lob his way each election cycle, he said. He hates fundraising, he said, and he typically raises and spends less each election than other U.S. House members in Utah.
"There is no amount of money that you could give me that would change the way I vote on an issue," said Bishop, who had $561,000 in campaign funds as of June 30, the end of the last reporting period, according to the Federal Elections Commission. "There has to be some personal integrity so I can feel good about myself."
Either way, the role of funding from corporate interests and political action committees worries Eliason — reforming the political system is a priority — and he's refusing donations from PACs. Instead, he's injected $198,000 of his own money into the campaign, the majority of the $232,000 he had raised through June 30, helping give him the second-largest war chest in the contest, behind Bishop. "We've got to be clean in our politics," said Eliason, an adjunct Utah State University professor and investment group partner from Logan.
And he says his bid amounts to a sort of challenge that Bishop has never had to face. The incumbent, seeking his ninth and final term in office, has won by landslide-like margins in many of his prior elections.
"He's never had to run against a moderate. He's always run against a Democrat. This is a completely different option for people that they haven't had before," said Eliason, running for elective office for the first time. Notably, Eliason has received endorsements from Democrat Kurt Weiland and Republican Kevin Probasco, who both ran for the 1st District seat but fell short in their respective primary bids.
The fourth contender for the 1st District U.S. House seat, which covers Weber and Cache counties, northern Davis County and seven other northern and northeastern Utah counties, is Adam Davis of the Green Party.
OBAMACARE, ESCALANTE, SPENDING
Here are Eliason's views, in short, on some key topics:
The Affordable Care Act doesn't necessarily need to be repealed but he favors a focus in health care on wellness rather than medical procedures. Furthermore, industries that potentially benefit from government policies — the pharmaceutical and insurance sectors had a hand in the ACA — shouldn't be involved in crafting them.
He offered critical comments in the wake of last year's decision by President Donald Trump's Administration slashing the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, which foes fear will pave the way to exploitation of natural resources at the locations. Bishop said protections would be implemented to protect the lands, Eliason said, but such moves haven't seemed to pan out.
"Sure enough, Escalante's being completely opened up to extraction," said Eliason. Lawmakers need to take an "active role" in environmental matters.
He calls for for fiscal responsibility. "We've got a Congress that is leaving a heck of a mess for the next Congress," Eliason said. "Tax cuts combined with $1.3 trillion dollar spending — you can't run a household like that, you can't run a business like that."
To address the immigration issue, the U.S.-Mexico border needs to be secured, first off, though he steers clear of the build-the-wall mantra of the Trump Administration. At the same time, Eliason expressed sympathy for younger undocumented immigrants who have attained lawful status through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals initiative, touting creation of a pathway to citizenship they can tap.
"They've been part of our communities," Eliason said.
He thinks marijuana should be removed from the list of schedule 1 drugs, as determined by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, a big point in the debate over legalizing the drug, for medical use or otherwise. Per DEA guidelines, schedule 1 drugs, which also include heroin and LSD, are deemed to have no accepted medical use.
Beyond the issues, part of Eliason's task is garnering name recognition, especially since the 4th District U.S. House contest between Mia Love, the GOP incumbent, and Democrat Ben McAdams seems to be getting the most attention of Utah's federal contests. He has hope, though, maintaining that 42 percent of voters nationwide identify as independent. Running full-time, on leave from his day jobs, he thinks he's making headway, tapping into what he sees as the nonpartisan well of voters.
"When I say I'm not running as a Republican or a Democrat, the most common response is a handshake," he said.
And the fact that he's spending so much of his own money? He sees it as an investment, in changing how things are done at the federal level and tempering the influence of special interest groups and the money they spend. If the money he injects into his campaign helps get him into office, allows him to pursue his vision, the difference could be significant, he thinks.
"If we can address things like the debt, if we can address things like health care, if we can address things like the environment — that could turn out to be a really great investment," Eliason said.