Utah Republicans must be apoplectic today. Despite gerrymandering his district for the second time in a decade, despite the presence of a Mormon GOP presidential candidate on the ballot, and even after spending a combined $5 million, the GOP has once again failed to rid the state of its last remaining congressional Democrat, Rep. Jim Matheson.
This year, the Republicans took their best shot yet at Matheson, who has survived a host of close races in his career. In this election cycle, Matheson faced a surprisingly strong candidate, Mia Love, the Haitian-American, Mormon, tea party conservative mayor of Saratoga Springs. Starting out as a virtual unknown, the telegenic part-time fitness instructor and former flight attendant landed a major speaking slot at the Republican convention in Tampa and became a national media darling. The party's biggest names stumped for Love in Utah, bringing her from a double-digit polling deficit in the spring to a five-point lead right before the election. The race shattered state spending records, and at $10 million, became the most expensive House race in state history. But in the end, even robocalls from Mitt Romney weren't enough to push Love into the winner's circle.
There had been much fear among Democrats that Utah voters would simply vote a straight GOP ticket thanks to Romney's presence at the top. But at least in the 4th District, where Matheson was running, that simply wasn't the case. The results of the election seemed to prove that Matheson knew what he was talking about when he told me this summer that Utahans are not the straight-ticket Republican voters they're often made out to be. He said his constituents really are true independent voters who vote the person, not the party.
Love's tea party policy views may have been too extreme even for one of the nation's reddest states (she even supported ending the federal school lunch program), though it's almost certain that she suffered from her campaign's disorganization. Despite reinforcements from Washington, Love's campaign was plagued with logistical problems (she stood up Romney when she was supposed to introduce him at the NAACP convention), staff turnover and embarrassing media episodes. After Mother Jones raised questions about the story she'd been telling about her family's immigration history, Love's campaign tried to deflect some of the fallout by releasing an internal poll claiming she had taken a 13-point lead in the race.
Love's campaign seemed unable to manage even the basic paperwork required to rent a table at a Utah teachers' convention this fall, a mishap that left her wandering the exhibit hall handing out flyers in violation of the rules. Making the jump from mayor of a town of 18,000 (where Love was elected with a mere 800 or so votes) to member of Congress representing more than 700,000 people in a brand-new district, required a well-coordinated ground game, and that's probably where Matheson outhustled Love. Matheson prevailed by only about 2800 votes, according to the still-unofficial count. But Utah's Democrats, who have been very lukewarm on Matheson because of his conservatism, seem to have rallied to save their voice in Congress. Reports the Deseret News:
Utah Democratic Party chairman Jim Dabakis said his party saw the Romney tsunami coming.
"We worked harder. We knocked on more doors. We organized as we've never done before, and I think it made a difference," he said, citing the work of the newly formed LDS Democrats and other groups for Matheson's win.
Matheson has been criticized by some in his party for being a "Democrat in name only," because of his vote against Obamacare and other key liberal legislation, and they've suggested that it wouldn't matter much for the state whether he was reelected or not. But while Matheson has been a solid Blue Dog Democrat, the differences between him and Love were stark, especially when it came to the environment. Matheson, who was once a lobbyist for a DC environmental group, has been an strong voice in the House for protecting Utah's wilderness and watershed areas. Love campaigned on a platform calling for turning Utah's federal park lands over to the state, which would potentially open them up for mining and drilling.
Despite her loss, Love will probably not disappear from the political scene. She's still mayor of Saratoga Springs, of course. And like Sarah Palin, she clearly has a future as a Fox News analyst. But also, the Romney campaign and the national GOP relied heavily on Love during this year's campaign season to dispel criticism that theirs is a party of old white men. Even if Republicans can't take another shot at redistricting Matheson for another eight or nine years, they can prep Love for a rematch in 2014, and after her embarrassing defeat this week, she will probably be spoiling for a fight.