Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Attack ads hit the airwaves this week in the hotly contested race for Utah's new 4th Congressional District seat.
"Backed Obama," says the 30-second TV spot aimed at Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson.
"Raised property taxes three times," says the same-length ad targeting Republican Mia Love, the mayor of Saratoga Springs.
Neither candidate paid for the current commercials. They were produced by groups promising to spend big money in what will be one of the most closely watched races in the country. They're among several PACs that have reserved air time in the Matheson-Love matchup.
The National Republican Congressional Committee's new ad ties Matheson to President Barack Obama. It has reserved nearly $1 million in air time to go after the six-term congressman.
"I think (Matheson) has a lot of challenges in this race," NRCC spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said. Talking about being a loyal Democrat, he said, will come back to haunt Matheson.
As part of a $200,000 media buy, the House Majority PAC paid for the spot questioning Love's city spending and accepting a pay raise as mayor. The group aims to get Democrats elected to Congress.
"It's definitely an important race. It's a priority race of ours," said Andy Stone, House Majority PAC spokesman.
"We're involved here because Mia Love is saying one thing to voters in Utah, but the truth is actually something quite different."
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has also reserved $400,000 of TV time for pro-Matheson or anti-Love ads starting mid October.
Negative political ads cast candidates in the worst possible light, raise questions about their fitness for office and leave an unflattering image in the minds of voters.
The 4th District election could turn on how Matheson and Love attempt to define each other, said Quin Monson, director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at BYU.
"The battleground for this campaign is whether Mia Love is defined as ultraconservative or not. That's the question," he said. "Matheson is already pretty well-defined as a moderate to conservative Democrat. There's not a tremendous amount she can do to change that."
Monson said the NRCC commitment to air time is good as long as Love is within striking distance of Matheson.
"If she languishes below 40 percent and he stays above 50 percent, and it's two weeks before Election Day, they're going to pack up. They've done that in the past. Call John Swallow and ask him," he said.
The only two polls in the race so far showed Matheson with a double-digit lead. The House Majority PAC has him ahead 51-33, while a Deseret News/KSL survey had him up 53-38. Those polls were before Love's emergence on the national stage at the Republican National Convention last week.
Swallow and fellow Republican Morgan Philpot came the closest to knocking off Matheson in 2002 and 2010, respectively, though they had little national party support.
Love might be a different story, especially after creating a buzz at the convention. She picked up $175,000 in contributions since her Tuesday speech, according to her campaign.
Matheson and Love raised nearly the same amount in the second quarter of this year, but the incumbent congressman already had a $1 million head start. A good chunk of their cash will likely go to TV ads of their own over the next two months.
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