South Jordan, Utah — Mia Love runs half-marathons. She usually likes to run 40 miles a week, but she’s had to cut back on that lately, because she’s in the most important race of her life so far, albeit one of a different kind: She’s trying to defeat Democratic congressman Jim Matheson in the contest for Utah’s fourth congressional district. Her opponent began the race with some advantages: a powerful family, name recognition, and a $1 million war chest. But thanks to her enthusiastic base and support from the Romney campaign, Love might win. If she does, she’ll be the first black Republican woman in Congress.
I meet up with Love on October 20 at Jordan River Park in this suburb of Salt Lake City, where, despite her packed campaign schedule, she has found time to run a 5K. It’s pretty much the Platonic ideal of an October morning: The air is crisp, the sky is bright, and the Wasatch Range is majestic. Matt Holton, Love’s campaign manager, has run two 5Ks in his life: this one, and another a few weeks ago. Love cajoled him into running both, he tells me. It’s hard to say no to Mia.
At the finish line, a few dozen people mill around as Top 40 hits blast from a speaker. Despite a few volunteers manning a Love 4 Utah table and sporting chemical-hazard-orange T-shirts, this doesn’t feel like a campaign event. After finishing the race, stretching, and guzzling some water, Love makes the rounds. She doesn’t bring up the campaign. This morning, she’s a distance runner. And she seems more interested in hearing about what’s on the minds of the people she meets — chia seeds, Under Armour, and the best pre-race fuel (she likes McDonald’s pancakes) — than in self-promotion. One woman shows Love her new sports bra. At the RunGr8 tent, Love gets sidetracked by displays of colorful running shoes. “I’m sorry,” she says. “Whenever I see sneakers . . .” She picks the sales representatives’ brains for details about cushioning and flexibility. As she heads out of the tent, they call after her: “We’re voting for you!”
A few minutes later, she bumps into another supporter. “I bet you can’t wait for this to be over,” he says. She sighs. He’s right. “I knew that this was going to be tough work,” she tells me later, “and this is not for the faint of heart.”
Over the last few months, Love has faced an onslaught of negative ads, misleading assertions, and false accusations. She’s been called an anchor baby and an Aunt Tom, her Wikipedia page has been defaced with racist and sexist comments, and Matheson has charged that her proposed budget cuts show she “does not value safe communities.”
“I know that I’m not the only one dealing with this; Romney’s dealing with this also,” she tells me. “And I’m just really hoping that people are understanding that there are some forces out there that are trying to sway voters. They’re trying to do whatever they can to deceive, distort, and distract from the real issues that we face.”
The fourth district was created after Utah gained a House seat in the 2010 census. Matheson is the current representative of the second district, but he chose to run in the fourth this time because the redrawn second includes only about a third of his former constituents and is more conservative than before.
The fourth is also largely conservative, if less so than the second. This presents a problem for Matheson, who supported the stimulus and has backed President Obama in three-quarters of his congressional votes. He has attempted to deal with it by portraying himself as a moderate and Love as an extremist. Among other charges, he has accused her of jeopardizing Social Security and Medicare benefits for current retirees, giving herself a pay raise as mayor of the city of Saratoga Springs, and making it more dangerous by cutting the law-enforcement budget as a member of the city council.
#page#Those accusations are false. The reforms to Social Security and Medicare that Love supports wouldn’t affect anyone older than 55 today. Matheson’s own campaign had to backtrack on the claim about public safety in Saratoga Springs, acknowledging that the city had actually allocated $50,000 more for law enforcement while Love was on the city council. It also had to admit that Matheson had gotten the crime statistics wrong. He had claimed that the number of burglaries increased by 382 percent between 2008 and 2009, when in fact the number rose from 30 to 54. (Petty crime has increased in recent years, but given the city’s population growth, that’s not surprising.) Love did receive a pay raise as mayor, but the city council voted for it against her vocal opposition. She currently makes $830 a month, which doesn’t even cover all the expenses associated with the job.
Love’s accusers seem to care more about the quantity of their attacks than the quality, and the need to refute them has made fundraising critical for her campaign. Since her much-lauded speech at the Republican National Convention, she has received contributions from more than 13,000 individual donors across the country. But Matheson’s campaign has been able to keep up, thanks in part to generous donations from national liberal groups. Prominent supporters include the public-sector union AFSCME, Steny Hoyer’s AmeriPAC, and Nancy Pelosi’s PAC to the Future.
Why is the Left pouring so much money into this particular race? Love has a theory, which she explains at a gathering of about 20 people on the back patio of the home of former NBA player Shawn Bradley. “I am working against $2.4 million,” she tells the group. “It’s unheard of in this state. How many people have seen a congressional race run like this, where there’s so much money on TV, ever? Why would this happen? It’s because I pose a little bit of a problem for Barack Obama and his liberal agenda. I take these myths that he’s put out there for so long, and I get to go out and tell people, ‘You will never be successful being handcuffed and dependent on government.’”
Personal responsibility is a preeminent theme of Love’s campaign, and it could be part of why she worries the Left so much. Love’s parents immigrated from Haiti, where a brutal dictator and a corrupt bureaucracy had a stranglehold on the economy. Once in America, her parents took any work they could get, from housekeeping to toilet-scrubbing, to support her and her two older siblings. But they never took government handouts.
“Our lives centered around self-reliance,” she tells the audience. “They taught me by example that I wasn’t entitled to anything I didn’t own, earn, or pay for myself. I’m grateful for that.”
When Love’s father dropped her off at college, he said, “Your mother and I did everything we could to get you to where you are. You will not be a burden to society. You will give back.” When she drops her first child off at college, she plans to say the same thing.
Because of that commitment to both personal responsibility and community service, she ran for the Saratoga Springs city council. She won, and helped shrink the city’s annual budget shortfall from $3.5 million to just $779,000. After Love became mayor, it earned the highest bond rating possible.
“I had to ask three questions whenever I made any new [spending] commitment,” Love explains at the meeting. “Is it affordable? Is it sustainable? Is it my job? If Washington would do the same thing, I would still be at home.”
Instead, she’ll spend the next two weeks speaking at cottage meetings, knocking on doors, and calling registered voters to urge them to vote — all while continuing to fulfill her duties as a mayor and mother of three.
“You know, I don’t sleep anymore,” she says. “But it’s okay.”
Matheson probably shouldn’t be sleeping either. Real Clear Politics lists the race as a toss-up, and momentum seems to have moved in Love’s direction since the Republican convention. “People agree with her,” Holton tells me. “They’re not okay with this president, and they’re not okay with the fact that our opponent has supported him 75 percent of the time.” If he’s right, Love will win by a nose, and this race will be one for the books.
– Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.