Dems target Mia Love in must-win Utah House race

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Freshman Rep. Mia Love’s (R-Utah) heavily targeted seat is moving closer to the Democratic column in a must-win contest for Democrats.

Democrats are rejoicing over a recent Salt Lake Tribune/Hinckley Institute poll showing Democratic rival Doug Owens up by 6 points and two nonpartisan election handicappers moving the seat to toss-up.

{mosads}The GOP-leaning seat has been on Democrats’ radar since Owens lost to Love by about 4,000 votes in 2014 in a year when Republicans made major gains in Congress.

The unpredictable presidential cycle and presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump’s unpopularity in Utah make it even more favorable for House Democrats in their uphill battle for the majority.

Love, a rising star in the Republican Party and the first black female Republican in Congress, goes into the rematch with better name recognition and  about $300,000 more than Owens has on hand.

But the Democratic lawyer is a strong recruit who already has a campaign against Love under his belt and has proved to be a better fundraiser this cycle than last, when he raised less than $1 million to Love’s $5.3 million. Still, Love has raised nearly $2.4 million since the beginning of 2015, and Owens has raised roughly $1.1 million since July 2015.

His family also has a history of serving in Congress: His father, Wayne Owens, represented Utah in the House from 1987 to 1993.

“Doug is running a top-notch campaign,” said former Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah), who defeated Love in 2012 by just 768 votes and whose seat Love won when he retired in 2014. “Having been around the track once, he’s a stronger candidate this time in all respects.

“I don’t think [Love’s] really secured the district as incumbents often do,” he added.

By the numbers, this district seems like unlikely territory for Democrats to wade in. In 2008, GOP presidential nominee John McCain won 56 percent of the vote, and four years later, Mitt Romney, popular among his fellow Mormons in the state, beat President Obama there with 68 percent.

Despite Romney’s overwhelming support, the suburban Salt Lake County district has a history of ticket-splitting voters. In 2012, Matheson beat Love by a razor-thin margin.

If the party is serious about recapturing the House majority, seats like Love’s are the ones Democrats will need to lock up to close their 30-seat deficit.

“Given the quality of their recruit in Owens in the seat and the fact that the district is particularly anti-Trump even though it’s Republican, I would think that Utah [Congressional District] 4 is basically a must-win seat if the Democrats are going to get to 30 seats,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball.

“There’s probably about 15 districts that might be more like low-hanging fruit for Democrats this year because they need to find another 15 in order to really put the House in play, and so they need to put those seats in play that otherwise wouldn’t have been in play, and maybe this is one of them,” he said.

The Love campaign is taking the race seriously. The campaign has sent several fundraising emails highlighting the poll and acknowledging the tough fight ahead for the GOP freshman.

“For months now, Obama, [House Minority Leader Nancy] Pelosi and the Democratic establishment have been pouring money and resources into this race hoping to beat me. And right now it is working,” says one fundraising email with the subject line “We’re falling behind.”

The email went on to tell supporters, “This is going to be a grueling contest but I need your immediate support to allow me to fight back and recapture the momentum.”

But in an interview with The Hill, Love’s campaign manager, Dave Hansen, brushed off the poll’s results and said the race will continue as planned and “not in reaction to a flawed poll.”

Even considering the latest poll results, the seat is not a sure bet for Democrats, who are competing in one of the most reliably red states in America. Utah is one of nine states to have voted Republican in each of the past 12 presidential elections.

But Trump, who came in a distant third in the state’s caucuses, is highly unpopular, especially after his repeated criticisms of Romney. In a recent Utah poll, Trump and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton were tied.

“We’d prefer to have Mitt Romney at the top of the ticket,” Hansen said. But “when it comes right down to it, Hillary Clinton is not going to win Utah.”

Political analysts warn that Trump could ultimately have an impact on down-ballot Utah races, and they suggest Love distance herself from the controversial GOP standard-bearer.

“She has to sort of place herself outside that context and get people to show up and vote for her,” said James Curry, assistant professor at University of Utah.

Love’s campaign said any decision about whether the congresswoman will campaign alongside Trump — who pledged over the weekend to campaign in the state — won’t come until he has concrete plans.

Noting that Love has not endorsed Trump, Hansen said, “If and when the visit is scheduled, then the question of her attending will be decided then.”

But Love also has to contend with other issues.

In late 2015, she came under fire for billing taxpayers for flights between Washington and Salt Lake City. She pledged to pay back the more than $1,000 cost of the travel, which was to attend the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in the spring. House members are prohibited from using their congressional allowance for events that are “primarily social in nature.” 

Following the reimbursement issue, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report changed its rating of the race from “likely” to “lean” Republican. Last week, the seat was changed to “toss-up.”

That’s exactly how Democrats plan to paint Love: someone who is more concerned with being on the national stage than serving her district and fellow Utahans.

“Mia Love has become a national celebrity on cable news at the expense of serving her constituents,” Owens spokesman Taylor Morgan said. “Doug will work for Utah, not for party bosses or any national agenda.”

But Hansen pushed back on that characterization and said Democrats will “fail” if they try to use such issues against her.

“The race is going to be a judgment of her time in office,” he said.

Political observers in the state predict a race that could swing either way at this point and expect it to take a different tone than it did two years ago.

A Republican operative with knowledge of the contest noted that Democrats will wage a more aggressive campaign and Love will likely have to employ a more negative tone.

“This time around, if necessary, we are willing to do what’s necessary to make sure she wins,” Hansen said.

Asked if that means Love would run a more negative campaign, Hansen responded, “Anything would be more negative than we did last time. I don’t think we mentioned his name once last campaign.”

When it comes down to it, observers suggest that Love run a localized race that triggers voters’ memories about their excitement to support her two years ago.

“I think what Love has to do she has to remind people why they liked her so much in the first place, why she could win in 2014 and why she was seen as such an exciting candidate,” Curry said.

Tags Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Jim Matheson John McCain

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