Utah House Candidates Both Have The 'Right Strategy'
In Utah, the state's lone Democratic congressman is in a tough battle for a seventh term. Jim Matheson's opponent this time has the support of national GOP superstars. If elected, Mia Love would become the first black Republican female member of Congress.
In a state where only about 25 percent of residents vote as Democrats, Matheson has successfully gotten enough Republicans to vote for him and keep him in office for the last 12 years. Matheson can trace his political roots back to his father, Scott Matheson, the state's last Democratic governor.
"I remember, even though it was years ago, he'd say, 'You know, when you've got both the left and right mad at you, you're probably doing the right thing.' I think he just took a pragmatic approach to trying to do the right thing to help people," he says. "And that's my politics, and that's what I learned from him."
Part of Matheson's success has come from portraying his GOP challengers as too conservative, even for Utah. He says his current opponent, Love, fits that mold.
"My opponent is beyond 'Tea Party right.' I think that it is all about the issues and the contrast between me being someone who puts Utah first versus someone who'd just going to support the party line," he says.
At the State GOP Convention earlier this year, Love soundly defeated the favored candidate, a former state legislator, to seize the party nomination. GOP superstars, like House Speaker John Boehner and Arizona Sen. John McCain, made special trips to Utah to campaign for Love, and she won a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention.
"Mr. President, I'm here to tell you the American people are awake, and we're not buying what you're selling in 2012," she said in Tampa.
Since both Love and Matheson are Mormon, religion hasn't been an issue in the election. Still, Love is focusing her campaign on conservative themes.
"I do not think that Jim Matheson and the Democratic Party represent Utah's values. We believe in lower taxes, individual liberty, personal responsibility, fiscal discipline. And those are fundamental differences that we're going to discuss," she says.
Matheson in turn has attacked Love on her plan to reduce access to student loans and his opponent's efforts to raise taxes in the town where she is currently mayor. He also skipped the DNC in Charlotte, rejected the party's endorsement of gay marriage, and no high-profile Democrats have come to Utah on his behalf.
In a recent debate with Love broadcast on CBS affiliate KUTV in Salt Lake, Matheson fended off his opponent's efforts to link him to health care overhaul.
"In 2011, he voted against the repeal of Obamacare, and that has been his position until this spring," Love said.
"It's pretty clear that my opponent just hasn't done her homework and doesn't know my record," Matheson countered. "Quite candidly, we voted on Obamacare three different times because I'm on the committee where the bill came from. So I actually had a chance to vote and voted 'no' well before anyone in the Utah delegation had an opportunity to even vote on the bill."
Matheson is a member of the conservative Blue Dog caucus in the House and has opposed his own party on countless occasions. Quin Monson, director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, says Matheson really is an independent voice for Utah.
"If you look at his voting record, he's the most conservative Democrat in Congress, which puts him very much in the middle," Monson says.
A poll published in June by local news organizations put Matheson ahead of Love by 13 points. But just last week, the Love campaign released a poll conducted on behalf of the National Republican Congressional Committee suggesting Love had surged to a 15 point lead. So it's clear, Monson says, the battle for voters' hearts and minds is still being fought.
"They're both following exactly the right strategy. He's trying to portray her as too extreme to keep those Republican voters, and she's attaching herself to Romney and all sorts of luminaries in an effort to get them back," he says.
And if Love does get those Republican voters back, it could make Utah home to a one-party Congressional delegation.