- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 5, 2014

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - When incumbent Democrat Jim Matheson decided not to run in Utah’s 4th Congressional District this year, many expected Republican Mia Love would cruise to a win in her repeat bid for the seat.

Love did win, becoming the first black Republican woman elected to Congress. But Utah Democrats discovered a strong contender in Doug Owens, a political newcomer who showed he can appeal to a wide swath of voters.

Owens, a 51-year-old Salt Lake City attorney and son of a former Utah congressman, was leading in early returns Tuesday night before the results shifted in Love’s favor. Love, the former mayor of Saratoga Springs, won with a margin of 50 percent to 47 percent.

Owens said Wednesday that he’ll strongly consider another for office in the future, and Democratic leaders are hoping they can persuade him to follow through on that in two years.

He may not be able to beat an incumbent Love in a 2016 rematch, but Owens showed he can be a formidable candidate for any host of races in the future, said Damon Cann, a political scientist at Utah State University.

“You can the bet that the Democratic Party has identified a new star in the state of Utah,” Cann said. “To make this election this close with those kinds of resources, he clearly has some native appeal to voters.”

Love’s win plucked from Democrats the only national office they have been able to capture in GOP-heavy Utah. Matheson, who had been Utah’s sole Democrat in Congress for 14 years, narrowly beat Love in 2012.

This year, Love vastly outraised and outspent Owens throughout the race for the Republican-leaning district. During a key-three month stretch this summer, she outraised him by a 5-to-1 margin.

Owens said Wednesday that while he wished the outcome was different, he wasn’t surprised it was a close race.

“I had tremendous enthusiasm building. I felt like there was momentum,” Owens said. “You need some money to broadcast your message. But after that point, the message matters, and I think that was resonating with people.”

The close race shows voters “are not just going to vote a party line. The voters pay attention to candidates and the message,” Owens said. About a month before the election, Owens said there were still voters who didn’t know his name. But by running ads on TV and hitting the streets, Owens thinks he got past that problem.

He’s willing to run again in 2016, when Love will be up for re-election, Owens said. “I’m still excited to work on issues and would definitely consider running again,” he said.

Political scientists say Owens was able to exceed nearly everybody’s expectations by staking himself out as a moderate and painting Love as an extreme candidate - tactics Matheson had used against Love in 2012.

“People in some way had gotten used to voting for Matheson, and so Doug Owens was basically saying, ‘Do the same thing you did before for me,’ ” University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said.

Owens could consider a future run for a major office like governor or U.S. Senate, or he could use his newly raised profile to aim for a seat in the state legislature or in city or county government, Cann said. No matter the race, he would be in a much better position to raise money for a campaign, Cann said.

“The state party would be foolish not to go back to him for something at some point to try to capitalize on Utahns favorable view of Doug Owens,” he said.

Peter Corroon, chairman of the Utah Democratic Party, said Owens could give Love another “run for her money” in the 4th Congressional District in two years or slot nicely into being the Democratic candidate for governor or U.S. Senate.

Despite the loss, “it’s a silver lining for us to have seen the capabilities of Doug Owens and what he could do in Utah,” Corroon said.

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