Mia Love is a conservative rock star nationally, but locally, Utah voters might not be digging her tune. Now she could be in for another tough fight in a strongly conservative congressional district.
Love rose to national prominence in 2012 after scoring a coveted speaking spot at the Republican National Convention, boosting her chances of becoming the first black Republican woman elected to Congress. What followed didn’t go as planned: Democratic incumbent Jim Matheson eked out a 0.3 point victory (fewer than 800 votes) over Love in a district that Mitt Romney won by nearly 40 points. When Matheson announced he would not seek reelection this cycle, Love immediately jumped in again and was widely considered the favorite to represent Utah’s fourth district.
But Love is now in another competitive race. A recent survey from Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy shows finds her trailing Democrat Doug Owens by four points, with a 6.4 percent margin of error.
“The most we can say here is that, according to the result, neither candidate has distanced themselves from the other,” center co-director Jeremy Pope tells National Review Online. “This district is more marginal than most people might think.”
While Pope and Chris Karpowitz, the center’s other co-director, expect Love to win on Election Day, their “surprising” survey results show the gap between her national popularity and her local appeal.
“When people learn more about [Love], they’re kind of polarized about her,” says Pope, noting that “her negatives are higher than you would expect.” Meanwhile, “[Owens is] playing the moderate, pragmatic, reach-across-the-aisle-type guy and can use that against Mia Love.”
Owens has made a point to highlight Love’s more firebrand rhetoric and positions from her 2012 bid, when she emerged as a tea-party favorite. Education has emerged as one of his main cudgels. For instance, in a recent debate, Owens latched onto comments Love made two years ago advocating the elimination of the Department of Education. When asked to clarify at a Deseret News editorial-board meeting, Love reportedly didn’t give a direct yes or no answer, leaving the door open to more attacks. Owens also has gone after her for suggesting the curtailing of federal spending on student loans, which she says has monopolized the market and made it nearly impossible for private lenders to compete.
Owens has also tried to pin on Love support of last year’s government shutdown, tying her to Utah’s Republican senator Mike Lee, who helped lead the effort in the Senate. Love denies Owens’s charges and has pushed back that she supports the repeal of Obamacare but disagreed with the tactic of shutting down the government. Two other points of contention between the two candidates: her belief that Environmental Protection Agency regulations should be loosened and that federal land in Utah should be returned to the state.
Meanwhile, just as Matheson did, Owens has benefited from his family legacy in the Beehive State. Matheson’s father, Scott, served two terms as governor of Utah; Owens’s father, Wayne, was a four-term congressman and gubernatorial candidate.
The combination of family roots and a more moderate image has allowed Owens to keep the race tight. A poll by UtahPolicy.com released on Thursday shows Love leading Owens 48 percent to 43 percent (with a five-point margin of error) but struggling to win over independents. Independents back Owens over Love by nearly a two-to-one margin. Additionally, while Owens enjoys 99 percent support within his own party, Love’s support among Republicans isn’t as strong. Seventy-eight percent say they will vote for Love, but 16 percent say they back Owens.
“What kind of Republican is she going to be? Is she going to be a Mike Lee, or a Mike Leavitt [the Beehive State’s more moderate former governor]?” Pope asks. “I think voters in Utah are still trying to figure that out.”
As most other Utah races are expected to be double-digit blowouts for Republicans, the UtahPolicy.com survey is more in line with what Karpowitz and Pope expect will come on Election Day — a single-digit win by Love. But it also hints at the possibility of an Owens upset, à la Matheson. If Owens can solidify unanimous Democratic support, in addition to a plurality of independents, and about a quarter of Republican voters, he can win, they say. “Matheson perfected this recipe,” Karpowitz says.
If she wins, Love can expect to fulfill the high hopes Republicans have for her as the emerging face of the party. In a few days, she’ll find out if she will get that opportunity or suffer an upsetting repeat of 2012.
— Andrew Johnson is an editorial associate at National Review Online.