Utah’s 4th District appears to be as red as they come. Mitt Romney carried it by 37 points in 2012.
But last cycle, in a blowout year for Republicans around the country, GOP Rep. Mia Love carried it by only 5 points.
That was reason enough for attorney Doug Owens, who lost to Love in November, to launch a rematch campaign this July.
Now, on top of Love’s narrow 2014 victory, the state Democratic party has pounced on allegations she used taxpayer money to pay for a flight to Washington, D.C., and other expenses to attend the White House Correspondents Association Dinner in April.
Love maintains she used taxpayer funds because part of her trip included a meeting with her chief of staff. But she later refunded the money.
It’s unlikely that a year out from the election, allegations of misusing $1,000 will have a major impact on the outcome of her race.
But Democrats are using the accusations to fill in the picture of Love they’ve been trying to paint for the past two cycles — that she’s a rising star within the Republican Party who’s more interested in rubbing elbows with the powerful than representing the Beehive State.
Owens invoked such a contrast in a statement about the race to CQ Roll Call Tuesday.
“Those who know me know that I’m not flashy,” he said. “Fortunately, there are plenty of celebrities and cable news stars in politics. Congress needs, and Utah deserves, a representative who will get off TV and get things done.”
Love first gained national attention when she spoke at the 2012 Republican National Convention. She lost her challenge to seven-term former Rep. Jim Matheson by less than half a point that fall.
When she won two years later in an open race, Love became the first black Republican woman to be elected to Congress.
Democrats know that if they’re going to unseat Love, her first re-election, which falls in a presidential year, is their best chance.
Still, the fundamentals of the district are hard to ignore. Republicans have a decisive registration advantage, and the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call rates the race Safe Republican.
And yet, Republicans insist that the complexion of the district isn’t quite so red.
“People say it’s a big Republican district. No, it isn’t,” Love campaign manager Dave Hansen told CQ Roll Call.
“People in that district will vote for a Democrat if they feel so inclined. You can’t just look at the top of the ticket and see that Romney did well,” he said, arguing that party registration numbers in the state are misleading.
Of course, Love’s campaign has an interest in defending her against attacks that she underperformed the 2012 presidential nominee.
But Hansen also pointed to the electoral success of Democrats at the congressional and local level, such as Matheson and some local county officials.
Utah voters “want to be fair,” said Utah GOP strategist Brian Chapman. “They want to give both parties a chance.” That was especially true, he explained, when Matheson was running and when a Democrat was running for his open seat.
“Congressman Matheson was definitely someone that had an outsized influence in the state, so when [Love] originally ran against him it was a very difficult run,” Chapman said. “There was still that feeling that we need to protect that Matheson legacy.”
Owens’ family also has a political legacy in the state. His father, former Rep. Wayne Owens, served four nonconsecutive terms in Congress and ran for Senate and governor.
When Love ran again in 2014 for the then-open seat, “there was still some of that feeling — that hey, we need to keep one Democrat in office,” Chapman added.
That said, any Democrat who wins in the 4th District won’t look like a national Democrat, and won’t win with a traditional Democratic campaign. Owens isn’t trying to run to Love’s left. His communication director, Taylor Morgan, is a registered Utah Republican.
“Owens is, in a lot of ways, a Jim Matheson kind of Democrat,” state Sen. Jim Dabakis, a former state Democratic Party chairman, told CQ Roll Call.
Democrats acknowledge Love has moderated since she first ran for Congress. In the past five or so months, she’s voted with the Republican party 97 percent of the time, compared to 94 for the average House Republican, according to CQ’s Vote Watch.
“She’s Republican, but she’s not necessarily, for lack of a better term, a right-wing wacko Republican,” her campaign manager Hansen said.
Unlike in 2014, Hansen said the Love campaign won’t hesitate to go negative, especially if Democrats surface old attacks from 2012 about her wanting to eliminate the Department of Education. “We’re not going to let them get away with stuff that was done last time. If we need to fire back, we’ll fire back,” Hansen said.
What else contributed to Love’s relatively narrow 2014 victory that won’t be an issue this cycle?
“She was a female and a minority,” Hansen said. “Whether we like it or not, there are some who wouldn’t vote for her.” He predicts that a term in Congress will mitigate any concerns voters once had about who Love is.
“We don’t think this is a slam dunk,” Hansen added. “But in the end, she’s going to win and by a bigger margin than last time.”