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Love and Owens Battle in Utah's Most Contested Congressional Race

Salt Lake Tribune Photo Pool

Republican Mia Love hopes she can win the seat after being narrowly defeated by incumbent Jim Matheson in 2012.  With Matheson announcing his retirement last year, Democrat Doug Owens has stepped into this year’s race with the hopes he can overcome a very popular GOP candidate. 

When Mia Love talks about her narrow defeat in 2012, the one fact she remembers specifically is the number of votes she lost by.

“768. Who’s counting?” says Love.

Only 768 votes.  But Love looks back on the race where she came up short as a learning experience.

“Well you know, when you come within 768 votes of a very popular incumbent, there’s something to be said about that. I that the campaign team, although we didn’t know what we were doing, I think they did a very good job,” says Love.

After serving as a city council member and then mayor of Saratoga Springs, Love defeated several prominent lawmakers in 2012 to seize the GOP nomination for the 4th district. Almost overnight, national leaders in the Republican Party turned out to support her.  Senator John McCain, House Speaker John Boehner and Condoleezza Rice all came to Utah and she spoke at the party’s national convention.  During this year’s campaign, Washington’s GOP elite have been absent, but one Republican heavyweight turned out to support her.

“I’m convinced  that she’s not just going to a congresswoman, she’s going to great congresswoman,” said Romney.

Mitt Romney headlined a rally for Love near Provo earlier this month.

“I love this great country and the reason I’m still out campaigning is I want to campaign to see people like Mia Love in congress and she’s going to get there, you’re going to get her there. She is the best!  Mia Love, your next congresswoman.  Mia,” said Romney.

“I am running for you. I am running for Utah. I am running for freedom. Run with me,” said Love.

Most of Love’s traceable contributions came from out of state donors. She has raised nearly five times as much money as her opponent, Democrat Doug Owens. Owens is trying to do what Jim Matheson did successfully in 2012: paint Love as someone who cares more about national party politics than representing ordinary folks in Utah.

“Utah voters will think for themselves. They want someone who’s going to put Utah first, who’s going to be independent and that’s what I offer and that’s how I’m going to win over the moderates,” said Owens.

Owens, son of the late Utah congressman Wayne Owens, struggled early on in his campaign to become a recognizable figure among voters, but he feels his message is being received well among those he’s engaged.

“If voters get to know who I am and what I stand for, they will vote for me.  So, I think the attention is wonderful. I appreciate and am working hard to earn more of it,” said Owens.

Education funding, specifically student loans has become a central issue. During her 2012 campaign, Love’s views were included in a Utah GOP mailer that suggested ways to reduce federal spending. Eliminating subsidized student loans and Pell grants was on that list.  Love hasn’t called for similar cuts during this campaign, but Owens has attacked her on the claim from two years ago with ads like this one.

“Mia Love’s extreme views on education will hurt Utah’s families and that’s why I’m running for Congress. I’m Doug Owens and I want to make it easier for students to access higher education, not harder,” said Owens.

But when Owens pressed her on the issue during a live debate between the candidates earlier this month, Love responded by calling for more state and local control over education funding.

“I am convinced that an unlimited flow of federal dollars into colleges has caused the rate of tuition to rise far faster than the rate of inflation, making it very difficult for middle-income families and lower income families to receive a higher education,” said Love.

Chris Karpowitz is co-director of The Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University. He says Love is more recognizable that Owens, but she has struggled to re-invent herself as a more locally concerned candidate.

“Those first impressions that were formed in 2012 were not always that favorable to her within in the district or in the eyes of voters. So, she’s trying harder I think not to be seen as too far to the right,” says Karpowitz.

Karpowitz says Owens is also trying to present himself as an independent thinker, one who wouldn’t always follow the Democratic Party line in Washington.

“He’s willing to criticize Democratic policy victories like Obamacare or the Dodd-Frank financial reforms in an attempt to rally support among enough independents and moderate Republicans to really make the race interesting,” says Karpowitz.

Recent polls in the race show that the contest is perhaps closer than first thought for a district that demographically leans heavily Republican.  A poll released earlier this month by Utah put Love ahead by 9 percentage points with an equal number of voters still undecided. A more recent poll conducted by Karpowitz and others at B-Y-U put Owens ahead of Love by more than 3 points.  But the sample size in that poll is small, only 236 respondents. And the margin of error is 6.4 percent indicating that this race is still very much up for grabs.  Karpowitz says both candidates struggling to overcome challenges.

“The bad news for Owens is that he’s running as a Democrat in a heavily Republican district and lots of people still don’t know very much about him.  The good news for him is that when voters learn more about him, they like him. Reactions to Love are far more divided. So respond very positively as they learn more about her, but an equal number respond pretty negatively,” says Karpowitz.

Both candidates are campaigning furiously in the final days before the election.  Love hopes her vast financial resources and broad GOP support will make the differences.  Owens is holding out hope that he can pull off an upset.    

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