Fast-rising Republican star Mia Love could make history next week in her bid for a House seat from Utah, but first she’ll have to beat back a surprising late surge from Democrat Doug Owens.
A win for Ms. Love, the former mayor of Saratoga Springs, would make her the first black Republican woman and the first Haitian-American elected to Congress. She’s being challenged by Mr. Owens, a Salt Lake City lawyer and son of a former congressman who’s been closing the gap in recent polls.
The most startling factoid: A survey released Monday by the Brigham Young University Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy found Mr. Owens leading by 45.8 to 42.2 percent. Days later, Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics downgraded the race from “safe Republican” to “likely Republican.”
Republicans promptly moved to discredit the survey as an outlier, and indeed, a poll released Friday by pollster Dan Jones for UtahPolicy.com found the Republican leading by 48 percent to 43 percent. Still, most analysts agree the race is no longer a slam dunk for Ms. Love, who was initially expected to coast to victory in the conservative state’s 4th Congressional District.
“I do not dismiss that [BYU] poll. I see that poll as consistent with what we’ve been seeing for the last three or four months,” said Tim Chambless, a University of Utah associate professor of political science and former aide to Democratic Gov. Scott Matheson. “What we’ve seen progressively is the numbers getting closer together.”
The BYU poll touched off such an uproar that analyst Bryan Schott posted an article last week on UtahPolicy.com under the headline: “Everybody Needs to Calm Down About the Latest Mia Love/Doug Owens Poll.”
“Does Democrat Doug Owens have a lead on Republican Mia Love in the final week of the election? Probably not,” Mr. Schott said. “Is the race in Utah’s 4th District tightening up? Absolutely.”If those in the Love camp are worried, they aren’t showing it. Love campaign manager Dave Hansen noted that the BYU poll also showed Republican Rep. Chris Stewart leading Democrat Luz Robles by just 43.3 to 36.7 percent in Utah’s 2nd District.
“There isn’t a person in this state who thinks that race is closer than 30 points,” Mr. Hansen said. “Now does that mean Mia’s 30 points ahead of Doug Owens? No. Where we’re showing it and where we’ve been showing it and where others are showing it is about 8 points, 8 to 10 points. And I think it’s holding quite steady there.”
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of the BYU center that conducted the poll, pointed out in a blog post on Utah Data Points that the results were within the poll’s 6.4 percentage-point margin of error, which he said is larger than that of most surveys due to the methodology.
“Every survey includes some level of uncertainty (and different kinds of uncertainty at that), and as we tried to emphasize yesterday, our results are best interpreted not as a ‘lead’ for Doug Owens but as a race in which neither candidate has substantially distanced himself or herself from the other,” Mr. Karpowitz said.
Even so, the results came as an unexpected boost for Democrats, whose chances of keeping the seat took a nosedive after Rep. Jim Matheson announced he would not seek re-election. Mr. Matheson won the 2012 race by just 768 votes over Ms. Love after Utah gained a congressional seat and he wound up in the newly created district.
Mr. Matheson has hardly disappeared: He’s been actively campaigning on Mr. Owens’ behalf, even going door to door with the candidate. The Owens camp has used the recent polling data to rally supporters, declaring on Facebook that, “The race for Utah’s 4th District is officially too close to call!”
The liberal-leaning Salt Lake Tribune has endorsed Mr. Owens, calling him “a worthy replacement for that other moderate Democrat who served Utah for so long, Rep. Jim Matheson.” The newspaper also endorsed Democratic candidates for the 1st and 2nd congressional seats now held by Republican Reps. Rob Bishop and Chris Stewart.
“I feel a sense of momentum, and I’m very excited about it. It’s absolutely winnable, and we’ll pull it out of a hat,” Mr. Owens, whose late father Wayne Owens was a five-term Utah congressman, told the Deseret News.
Ms. Love was ahead by 12 percentage points in August, but polls show her lead has eroded in the last two months. One problem she faces is that she’s still trying to repair the damage from the flood of attack ads in 2012 by national Democratic groups that drove up her negatives, Mr. Hansen said.
“We always knew it was going to be a tough race. Obviously she’s in the driver’s seat, but we always knew she was going to have to go out and work for it,” Mr. Hansen said. “She had to overcome a perception from the negative ads from last time. She didn’t go in with a clean slate.” At the same time, there’s no disputing that the key numbers add up in her favor. She’s outraised Mr. Owens by a margin of 7 to 1, and she’s running in a district that’s 47 percent Republican and just 16 percent Democrat, with 31 percent independent voters.
Not surprisingly, President Obama is enormously unpopular in Utah, a point that Ms. Love drove home in a television ad released Wednesday reminding voters of his Oct. 2 speech in which he says his policies are on the ballot.
“We can do better than the policies of Obama and his Democrat candidates. I’m asking for your vote. Run with me on Nov. 4,” said Ms. Love, alluding to her reputation as an avid runner.
Both Ms. Love and Mr. Owens are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He enjoys the personal connections that come with being a sixth-generation Utah resident. Ms. Love’s parents emigrated from Haiti, but she has the financial firepower to fuel a formidable ground game.
“We expect that her fundraising resources will play a key role in the final days of campaigning,” Mr. Karpowitz said. “Love will likely be able to bring advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts to the race that Owens probably cannot match.”
Still, the 4th congressional race has now become the contest to watch in Utah as politicos wait to see if Mr. Owens can deliver the upset, or if Ms. Love will capture the seat she’s been seeking for the past four years.
“Is it going to be a blowout? No, it’s not. Remember, half the people in the district voted against her last time,” Mr. Hansen said. “But we feel very good about where we are.”