Jim Matheson, Mia Love battle down to the wire in bitter 4th Congressional District race

Published: Thursday, Oct. 25 2012 5:00 p.m. MDT

4th Congressional District candidates Rep. Jim Matheson and Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love participate in their second debate on KSL 5 News in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Jim Matheson and Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love have spent as much time trying to define each other as they have defining themselves in the bitter 4th Congressional District race.

He says she's a right-wing extremist who wants to cut programs for special needs children and old people. She says he's a liberal Obama follower who says one thing in Utah and does another in Washington. She would raise taxes. He won't cut spending. She's distorting this, he's distorting that. And so it goes.

Both candidates have saturated the airwaves with commercials that make the other look sinister. They and their supporters have poured millions of dollars into one of the nastiest and most expensive ad wars in recent memory.

The Matheson-Love matchup has drawn unprecedented national and even international attention for a Utah congressional seat, largely due to its potential for a historic moment in U.S. history.

"If you step back from Utah and look at it nationally, if Mia Love is elected, she's the first black woman to a be a member of the Republican Party in the U.S. House of Representatives ever. The majority of people in the world are people of color so this is newsworthy, this is the unusual," said University of Utah political scientist Tim Chambless.

This past week, journalists from Poland, Switzerland and England interviewed Chambless about the significance of the race. He has also fielded calls from Al-Jazeera English and the London Times, as well as most major American news outlets.

Love has emerged as the six-term Democratic congressman's most formidable challenger yet. Her campaign is well-financed, and she has effectively put herself in the spotlight.

But where the race stands is anyone's guess. Public opinion polls are all over the map.

Love's internal poll has her up 51 percent to 36 percent. Matheson has a 48-41 lead in a survey conducted by a PAC supporting him. BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Politics shows a dead heat, with both candidates getting 43 percent.

A Deseret News/KSL poll in late September had Love up 6 points.

Most observers agree that Nov. 6 will be a long night for those waiting on election results in the 4th District.

The race is shaping up to be a battle over wavering Republican voters as to whether they'll split their tickets for Matheson, said Quin Monson, director BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. And that, he said, speaks to the strategy each candidate has recently employed.

"Mia Love seems to be reminding voters she is a Republican and endorsed by Republicans that are extremely well-liked at the moment, and Matheson is trying to avoid partisan labels because his doesn't fit and instead is turning to issues that are important to those sort of moderate voters," Monson said.

"He's on the defensive constantly about the fact that he's a Democrat, and she's on the defensive about his attacks of her issue positions being too extreme," he said.

Monson said the election could turn on which message gets through to that group of voters.

"It will probably split right down the middle. Some of them will go with the issues, and some of them will go with partisanship. It kind of depends on which voices are loudest in their heads on any given day because I think both of those are powerful messages to these voters," he said.

Chambless said he has found over the years that adults vote the same way they did in eighth-grade elections.

"They vote ultimately for who they like, who they identify with," Chambless said.

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