Elections

Running for Reelection, Mia Love Distances Herself from Trump

Mia Love at CPAC 2015 in National Harbor, Md. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)
She mostly supports his policies but shares the concerns of conservative Utah voters about his character.

My question seemed to catch Mia Love off guard. As we’re wrapping up our interview in a small call room at the National Republican Congressional Committee headquarters, a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol, I asked the Utah congresswoman a question she’d probably been dreading since Election Night 2016: Will you support President Trump for reelection in 2020?

In normal times, it would be unnecessary to ask a member of Congress whether she’ll be backing her party’s incumbent president, especially when that president is supported by nearly 90 percent of the party’s voters. But these are not normal times, and Love, who has represented Utah’s fourth congressional district since 2015, is unlike most legislators. She is the only black female Republican in Congress. She’s also the daughter of Haitian immigrants, a faithful member of the Church of Latter-day Saints, and the mother of three children.

So my question wasn’t just about whether Love plans to back a president whose policies, according to one tally, she has supported 96 percent of the time. It was also about whether she could endorse a man of weak character and strong prejudices, a man who only a few months earlier had referred to her parents’ homeland as a “sh**hole” country from which America shouldn’t be admitting immigrants.

So instead of a quick and affirmative response, I got this: “You know I, I don’t know what that’s going to look like. You’re going to have to ask me in 2020. You never know.”

Love’s muddled answer reflects the deep ambivalence about Trump that she and her constituents feel. Utah is one of America’s most conservative states, but its majority-Mormon electorate never embraced Trump during the 2016 election and hasn’t warmed to him since.

Trump won just 14 percent of the vote in the state’s 2016 Republican caucuses and only 45 percent of the vote in the general election. Trump won Utah’s fourth congressional district, which encompasses parts of Salt Lake and three other counties in the middle of the state, with just 39 percent of the vote.

Trump struggled in Utah partly because of his hardline stances on immigration and refugee resettlement. Mormons were once victims of state-sponsored discrimination, a history that makes them sympathetic to those who are socially stigmatized.

Love didn’t endorse or vote for Trump in 2016 and joined other Utah Republicans in urging him to step aside after the Access Hollywood tapes showed him bragging about sexually assaulting women.

In addition, Mormons prize character and civility in their leaders and commit to living lives of virtue, a concept most Mormons did not associate with Trump. In a 2016 poll, just 14 percent of Utah voters felt he was a good role model for young people, and only 16 percent believed he was a moral person.

Trump’s first 17 months in office — with his daily unhinged tweetstorms, headlines about porn-star pay-offs, and the ongoing cloud of the Mueller investigation — have only reinforced the image of Trump as lacking the character needed to be president. A poll earlier this year put his approval in the district at 42 percent. Just 18 percent of the district’s voters strongly approved of his job performance, while 45 percent strongly disapproved.

Love didn’t endorse or vote for Trump in 2016 and joined other Utah Republicans in urging him to step aside after the Access Hollywood tapes showed him bragging about sexually assaulting women.

In the House, Love has voted with Trump more often than any other Utah Republican. But she has also distanced herself from him at keys moments. When it was reported in January that he had referred to Haiti and several other poor nations as “sh**hole countries,” Love called the remark “unkind, divisive, elitist” and un-American. She called on the president to apologize both to the American people and to the countries he “wantonly maligned.” She later said that his remark was racist. “There isn’t anybody in the Republican party who has called out the president more than I have,” she told me.

Some constituents have urged her to stop criticizing Trump. But most say, “Thank you for saying that, because I was feeling it too.”

Love feels a particular obligation to speak up because she knows that her children, including her two teenage daughters, are paying attention. Some of Trump’s “behavior with women in the past is unacceptable,” she said. “I just need to know that my daughters are aware of that. . . . I tell them, ‘If you want to look for someone to look up to, look to me, talk to me.’”

Love is in many ways a conventional conservative Republican, earning high marks from all the leading conservative advocacy groups: 100 percent from National Right to Life, 83 percent form the Club for Growth, and 93 percent from the Chamber of Commerce. In her two terms in Congress, she has sponsored legislation to combat human trafficking, urged her party’s leaders to permanently repeal a medical-device tax that has hobbled medical-technology companies located in her district, and introduced a bill to stop taxpayer money from being used to settle workplace disputes in Congress. Her contribution to the immigration-reform debate is called the RAC Act, which would allow young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children to earn conditional five-year legal status.

Love’s Democratic opponent is Ben McAdams, the second-term mayor of Salt Lake County. McAdams (who declined to be interviewed for this piece) is presenting himself as a wonky centrist more interested in fixing local problems such as poor air quality, homelessness, and rampant drug use than in scoring political points. He rarely wades into cultural battles or comments on Trump. His speeches are filled with platitudes about the need for “healing dialogue” and finding “common ground” to enact policies that respect “conscience” while “affording human dignity.”

Calling himself a “fiscal conservative” and a “pretty moderate Democrat,” he ran for county mayor in 2012 under the slogan “Yeah, he’s different.” McAdams even produced a TV ad called “The Ben Bus,” in which he drove around the city in a school bus picking up 13 of the county’s 17 mayors who had endorsed his candidacy, most of them Republicans.McAdams defeated his Republican opponent by nine points, an impressive feat in a year in which Mitt Romney appeared at the top of the ballot. He won reelection in 2016 by 19 points, carrying ten Republican-held state legislative districts within the county.

McAdams is unlikely to replicate that level of Republican support. “I’m not going to cross party lines and endorse him this time,” said former Salt Lake City mayor Melissa Johnson, one of the “Ben Bus” Republican mayors I spoke with who said they won’t be supporting him this year. Johnson recently put a Love-campaign sign in her yard and said, “I agree with the direction Mia is heading and don’t believe it is in the state’s interests to vote her out.”

Like Johnson, former Taylorsville mayor Russ Wall endorsed McAdams for county mayor in 2012 but thinks Love is the better choice this time. “I don’t want to trash either one,” he says. “But I think, at the end of the day, Ben would go back and be more liberal than the people here. With Mia, there’s no reason to fire her.”

Love is portraying McAdams as a liberal sheep in centrist’s clothing. She notes that during his time in the state senate he was rated by the Salt Lake Tribune as the state’s most liberal state senator. She is highlighting his ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton, for whom he worked in low-level positions in the 1990s and early 2000s. Love also argues that McAdams would be a tool of Nancy Pelosi, although McAdams recently blunted that line of attack by stating that he would not support Pelosi for House speaker.

Utah Democratic-party chairman Alex Cragun calls Love’s attacks on McAdams “amateur hour” and claims that she is all talk and no action when it comes to standing up to Trump. “She says, ‘I’m not Trump,’ but then goes on and votes for his agenda,” he said. Love sees things differently. “The president doesn’t take a vote,” she said. “To be honest with you, it’s the president who has supported me 96 percent of the time.”

Mitt Romney is running for U.S. Senate, and Republicans hope his presence at the top of the ballot in Utah will help drive up turnout.

Love has broken with Trump on immigration and aluminum and steel tariffs. And she has bucked party leaders on several occasions, as when she voted against the $1.3 trillion budget and when she supported the “discharge petition,” which would prompt a debate and votes on a sequence of immigration proposals.

National Democrats are targeting the race, raising money for McAdams in the hopes that it will be part of a “blue wave” that will wash away the Republican House majority. As of April 1, Love had $915,000 cash on hand to McAdams’s $864,000, according to FEC numbers.

Mitt Romney is running for U.S. Senate, and Republicans hope his presence at the top of the ballot in Utah will help drive up turnout. Then again, the last time Romney’s name appeared on a ballot in Utah, when he ran for president in 2012, Love lost a race for Congress and McAdams won his for mayor.

Polls have consistently shown Love with a five- or six-point lead. But Democrats can be encouraged by a May poll putting McAdams’s approval in the district at 62 percent, and Love’s at 55 percent.

Utah political insiders say McAdams will need to attract support not only from unaffiliated voters, who make up about 40 percent of the district’s electorate, but also from some Republicans, who make up roughly 43 percent of voters.

In the end, the extent to which centrist, anti-Trump Republicans regard a vote for Love as a vote for the president may make the difference. Which means Love will likely continue to avoid talking about Trump and distancing herself from him when necessary. When I asked her whether she’d welcome a campaign visit by the president, she said, “I don’t need it. I’ve always been very good on my own.”

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