Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Like a magician freeing himself from a box filling with water, Rep. Jim Matheson escaped with his political life once again Tuesday to earn a seventh term in Congress.
The Democratic congressman claimed victory shortly after midnight in a hard-fought victory over Republican Mia Love after trailing in the polls going into Election Day. In so doing, he becomes the first representative from Utah's new 4th Congressional District.
After a seesaw battle all night long, Matheson bested Love 49.3 percent to 48.1 percent, a 2,818-vote gap, according to unofficial results. The difference came down to Salt Lake County, the only county Matheson won. Love was victorious in Utah, Juab and Sanpete counties.
In winning another term, Matheson held on to his position as the state's lone Democrat in Congress.
"I believe in building consensus and supporting good ideas wherever they come from and in being the voice for all Utahns," Matheson said. "This is who I am and how I always sought to move forward, by leading from the center and bringing people together."
Matheson said he expected the race to be tight and built a good ground game to get voters to polls.
"I want to tell you something. I have had a remarkable journey," Matheson told cheering Democrats at the Sheraton Hotel. "I am proud to have been a leader in getting things done."
Utah Democratic Party chairman Jim Dabakis said his party saw the Romney tsunami coming.
"We worked harder. We knocked on more doors. We organized as we've never done before, and I think it made a difference," he said, citing the work of the newly formed LDS Democrats and other groups for Matheson's win.
Love, 36, fought back tears as she addressed the media at the Hilton Hotel early Wednesday morning.
"This has been a long, hard battle," she said. "I don't regret one thing."
The Saratoga Springs mayor said she plans to continue to promote conservative issues. Also, as a mayor in the 4th District, Love she would work with Matheson while holding him and other congressional leaders accountable.
Matheson has now fended off six challengers — three of them narrowly — since wresting the 2nd District seat from a Republican 12 years ago. He jumped to the new 4th District this year after the GOP-controlled Utah Legislature carved up his district when it redrew congressional boundaries last fall.
The 52-year-old congressman has proven to be an astute campaigner who appeals to independents and moderate Republicans. In one of his TV ads, a local mayor said he was voting for Mitt Romney and Matheson. He portrays himself as an independent voice who puts Utah over party.
Love tried to tie Matheson to President Barack Obama and questioned his votes on the Affordable Care Act and federal bailouts.
After dropping millions of dollars, exchanging testy debate barbs and attacking each other week after week on TV, Matheson and Love were evenly matched in almost every way as they scrapped for votes to the final hour.
Close races are nothing new to Matheson, and he said he expected this one to be tight from the beginning. A Deseret News/KSL-TV poll late last week had him trailing Love by five percentage points.
Love would have made history with a victory as the first black Republican woman elected to Congress. She often downplayed race and gender during the campaign.
"I don't think that matters to Utah. If Washington is going to make a big deal of it, it's certainly positive in terms of what they think of Utah," she said after winning the GOP nomination in April. "The message of the Republican Party has nothing to do with race or gender. It really has to do with policy and principle, and that's what I represent."
The candidates spent much of the campaign trying to define each other.
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