Sooner or later, a black Republican woman was bound to run for Congress. It’s just that nobody expected her to hail from Utah.
Mia Love won the GOP nomination for the 4th Congressional District race Saturday at the Utah Republican Convention, scoring a major upset after wowing the crowd with a roof-raising speech at the South Towne Expo Center in Sandy.
The daughter of Haitian immigrants, Mrs. Love took 70.4 percent of the delegate vote, well in excess of the 60 percent required to avoid a primary runoff under Utah’s unique rules. She defeated former state legislator Carl Wimmer, who had been viewed as the heavy favorite. He mustered only 29.6 percent of the vote.
If Mrs. Love, 37, defeats her Democratic opponent, Rep. Jim Matheson, she will become the first black Republican woman to serve in the House.
“Today we have an opportunity to do something very special. Today we can start breaking a pattern,” Mrs. Love told the delegates before the vote over the weekend. “Today we can start bringing Jim Matheson home. Elect one nominee today, so we can take this fight to Jim Matheson tomorrow.”
She starts as an underdog against the six-term Democrat, but her oratorical skills and her unusual story should not to be underestimated, Utah political watchers say.
“She really gave a great speech. She gave an enthusiastic and well-delivered speech,” said Tim Chambless, associate professor of political science at the University of Utah. “And I think there’s a desire to send a message to the rest of the country that Utah is not all white males.”
The mayor of Saratoga Springs, Mrs. Love also may have benefited from a convention backlash spurred by state Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, a Wimmer supporter. Before the final vote, Mr. Shurtleff urged delegates to back a candidate with “a proven record who can beat Jim Matheson this fall. Not a novelty.”
Some delegates booed his remark, and Mr. Shurtleff later issued a tearful apology, saying he inadvertently made a “terrible choice of words.” He said he had meant to imply that Mrs. Love was new to the process.
Despite her underdog status, Mrs. Love had the support of some GOP heavy-hitters, including Josh Romney, son of likely Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, as well as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy and budgetmeister Rep. Paul Ryan.
Taking out a sitting congressman is never easy, especially one with Mr. Matheson’s long tenure in the House, name recognition and proven ability to defy the odds as a Democrat in a Republican state. But Republicans say they’re optimistic about Mrs. Love’s chances, pointing to the state’s newly configured congressional map.
Utah gained a fourth congressional seat in the 2010 census, leading to a dramatic redrawing of the state’s House districts. The state Legislature plowed more Republicans into Mr. Matheson’s 2nd Congressional District, leading him to jump to the 4th District, which is still largely Republican but has more Democrats.
Mr. Matheson’s move prompted cries of “carpetbagger” from Utah Republicans because the Democrat said he planned to keep his eastern Salt Lake City home, which remains in the 2nd District. Members of Congress are not required to live in the districts they represent.
Mr. Matheson, 52, has noted that he represented southwestern Salt Lake City, now a part of the 4th District, earlier in his career. Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz represents the state’s 3rd District even though he did not live there until the lines were redone.
Even before Mrs. Love’s nomination, national Republicans targeted Mr. Matheson for defeat. The National Republican Congressional Committee has aired two television ads highlighting his support for President Obama.
“This is the most Republican district in the country held by a Democrat,” said NRCC spokesman Dan Scarpinato. “He doesn’t live in the district. So it’s going to be a very challenging district for him.”
Analysts say Mr. Matheson would have had a better shot against Mr. Wimmer. The Democrat traditionally has won with heavy support from female voters, including Republican and independent women, who may switch allegiances when given the opportunity to vote for a female Republican.
“She’s very telegenic, and she’s very bright. She has many, many positive qualities,” said Mr. Chambless, who served as a speechwriter for former Gov. Scott Matheson, Mr. Matheson’s father and fellow Democrat. “Given that Republicans have tried without success to defeat Jim Matheson six times, this is a new approach.”
Mrs. Love belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members dominate Utah politics, and participated in the church’s recent “I’m a Mormon” ad campaign. She served two terms on the Saratoga Springs City Council before becoming mayor of the fast-growing suburb.
She ran as a conservative Republican, and her campaign has much for conservatives to love: She’s pro-life, pro-gun rights, pro-domestic energy exploration and pro-state control of public lands.
“If I could go to Washington tomorrow and change one thing, it would be to restore the power and decision-making back to the people,” she says in a campaign video. “What makes America great is this idea that we are free — free to work, free to live, free to choose, and free to fail, because our failures make us better.”