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Owens Tries To Gain Edge Over Love In Battle For Utah's 4th District

Mia Love and Doug Owens debate at Salt Lake Community College in October.

In the battle over the seat in Utah’s Fourth Congressional district, Doug Owens is hoping to do this year what he couldn’t do in 2014, defeat Republican Mia Love and become the lone Democratic voice in the Utah delegation.

Inside the Millcreek Senior Center last month Doug Owens weaved through a large crowd standing in line for the wildly popular salmon lunch. He greeted voters with enthusiasm and some responded with the same.

OWENS: How’s it going?

VOTER: I see you on television.  You’re running ads all over. You’re running against Mia Love.

OWENS: Yeah, Yeah.  You must be from New York.

VOTER: I’m from New York.

For Owens, every vote counts in this tight race, a race he lost in 2014 to Republican Mia Love by about 7000 votes.  Back then the seat in the fourth district was open after Democrat Jim Matheson announced his retirement. Owens’ campaign message is simple: lawmakers in Washington don’t work hard enough for their constituents.

“You know, six generations of my family have called this state home and I’m doing this to try to put Utah first and be the kind of representative that’s not going back to enjoy the perks of office but to remember who sent them there,” says Owens.

Owens says he wants Congress to work the way it did when his father Wayne Owens represented the second district in the seventies and eighties. To restore that sense of cooperation, he has an ethics package he wants to pass.

“It does away with automatic pay raises. It does away with self-promotional mass mailers.  It does away with, uh, I wouldn’t pay Congress if they can’t pass a responsible budget.  I wouldn’t pay Congress for the kinds of budgets they’ve been passing,” says Owens.

Owens is trying pin his criticisms of a broken congress on his opponent. Instead of combing through Love’s legislative record, Owens has largely tried to cast her as someone who enjoys the perks of office.  He attacked Love over mailers he says were unethically financed by taxpayer dollars.  Democratic political action committees have used the same tactics and poured money into ads like this one:

“Love even voted against an historic bi-partisan education bill, because with her busy social schedule, she didn’t even time to read.  Mia Love. Busy working for herself, not Utah.  House Majority PAC is responsible for the content of this advertising.”

Tim Chambless is an Associate Professor with the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. He says the tactics employed by Owens and Democratic super PAC’s aren’t resonating with voters. 

“And so we’ve seen the campaign focused on sub-issues and mini-dramas, rather than the essential issues, I think, major public policy issues,” says Chambless.

Mia Love is the first black Republican woman to serve in the U.S. House. She says she wants her first two years in congress to be judged based on her achievements.

“So I don’t shy away from who I am.  I don’t shy away from my gender or my color.  I know I’m there because of more than that.  I have a duty to make sure that I represent my people and represent them well,” says Love.

In her first term, Love has sponsored legislation that would extend survivor benefits to families of deceased veterans and served on the powerful House Financial Services Committee.

“I’ve been a pitbull for my district and I’m just getting started.  I’ve made it a point to make sure I keep the promises that I’ve made to them,” says Love.

While claiming to defend conservative values in Washington, Love also points to her efforts to reach across the aisle.

“I am the only Republican in the CBC, which is the Congressional Black Caucus. That allows me to bring a block of voters with us that no one has the influence of doing.  As a matter of fact, David Scott from Atlanta, a Democrat who endorsed me and gave money to my election. Think about this. That hasn’t happened anywhere,” says Love.

“She has tried to, with the help of her campaign manager Dave Hansen, has tried to change her image. That of an office holder who is the responsible position of governing rather than challenging,” says Tim Chambless.

Tim Chambless says while Love is pointing to her accomplishments in her first term, Owens is trying look more like the last Democrat to represent the fourth district.

“He is acting the tradition of Jim Matheson.  As a Utah Democrat. Fiercely independent fiscal conservative, social moderate who does not identify with the national party,” says Chambless.

Created during redistricting efforts in 2011, the fourth is geographically the state’s smallest district, encompassing southern Salt Lake County, parts of Utah County and reaching into Juab County.  Early on in the election cycle, analysts pointed to this race as one in Utah where a Democrat might have a chance of winning. Many predicted that the presidential race might have a down ballot effect with anti-Trump Republicans possibly casting votes for Owens, but during a recent debate both candidates steered clear of the presidential race.

“Hillary Clinton doesn’t represent my values. Donald Trump doesn’t represent my values. I have been looking into the other candidates and, you know, again, I have not closed the door on the other

“Now I have said I am voting for my party’s nominee, but that’s not, I have not endorsed any candidate. I am not participating in any race. I am trying to do what I can for Utah,” said Owens.

Even debate moderator Ken Verdoia expressed his surprise over the candidates’ responses.

“Uh, apparently I missed the distribution of ten foot poles that occurred just before prior to the debate because I’ve never been with two candidates in a debate setting where neither candidate would publicly endorse the top of their national ticket,” said Verdoia.

With election day in site, most polls have Love leading Owens by double digits. But the Democratic challenger is still hopeful he can overcome 2014’s 7000 vote margin and head to Washington next year.

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