SALT LAKE CITY — Republican Mia Love narrowed the gap on Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson after the outstanding votes were counted but not enough to keep him from a seventh term in Congress.
As expected, Matheson held his Election Day lead and escaped with a slim victory in Utah's new 4th Congressional District as counties released their final election results Tuesday.
Matheson ended up defeating Love by only 768 votes, his closest race yet. He owned a 2,646-vote lead before provisional, mail-in and paper ballots were counted. A total of 238,838 votes were cast in the district.
To force a recount, Love would have had to come within 488 votes, one for each precinct in the four counties that comprise the district.
But state Republicans aren't ready to throw in the towel just yet.
Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright said some provisional and mail-in ballots in Salt Lake County were disqualified, while others were accepted. GOP poll watchers, he said, weren't able to get all their questions answered about the counting process as the county tabulated votes.
"We'd like to get those questions answered to ensure that every vote is counted," Wright said. "We're not making any accusations. We're not saying anyone did anything wrong. We just want to be sure."
Democratic Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said she doesn't know what Wright is talking about. Poll workers, she said, went through ballots two and three times in an attempt to validate them.
"(Poll watchers) were here day in and day out asking questions, and we answered everything they asked," Swensen said. "They were there right in the room as we were verifying provisionals, so I don't have a clue what he's referring to."
Matheson, meantime, is relishing his victory.
After what Republicans threw at him this year, he sees the seat as his for as long as he wants it. The Republican-controlled Utah Legislature made sure the new district remained conservative, while the national GOP backed Love with unprecedented money and resources. She also had Mitt Romney at the top of the ticket.
"I don't think the moon and the stars can line up any more than they did this time against me," Matheson said. "They threw the kitchen sink at me this time. If it wasn't successful, I don't see how it could be in the future."
Matheson said he developed a campaign plan based on knowing the race would be close. He said he worked hard, raised the money and differentiated himself from Love.
A Deseret News/KSL poll just days before the election had Love leading Matheson 48 percent to 43 percent.
The difference came down to Salt Lake County, which has six times as many voters as the other three counties in the 4th District combined. Though Love gained on him in Salt Lake County since election night, Matheson pulled enough votes overall to offset Love's big margins in Utah, Juab and Sanpete counties.
The poll showed Matheson leading Love 48 percent to 44 percent in Salt Lake County. But pollster Dan Jones said Matheson would have to do better than that to win, and he did, capturing 52.5 percent in the county.
Neither candidate expected the canvass to change the outcome, though Love clung to the remote possibility of a reversal.
Calling him a survivor who won on conservative turf, the Washington Post named Matheson one of the best candidates of 2012. With polls showing him behind late in the race, "he overcame the odds to defeat one of the highest-profile Republican House challengers in the country."
A relatively unknown mayor of Saratoga Springs, Love received unprecedented national attention for a U.S. House candidate. She appeared on numerous national news programs over the summer and gave a rousing speech at the Republican National Convention in August. She would have become the first black GOP woman elected to Congress.
The final tally brings an end to one of the most expensive congressional races in Utah history.
The candidates and their supporters spent more than $10.5 million. Outside groups such as the National Republican Congressional Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee mounted aggressive negative attacks against Matheson and Love, totaling $6.7 million. Matheson raised $2.1 million on his own, while Love brought in $2 million.
Political observers anticipated a close race one way or the other. Love expected to win and said she was surprised when she didn't. Matheson remained confident throughout the campaign despite falling behind in the polls.
Love tied her campaign to Romney and even obtained a personal endorsement from the GOP presidential nominee. But the so-called "Romney tsunami" didn't make much of wave for down-ticket Republicans such as Love.
A third-party candidate, Libertarian Jim Vein, played a spoiler role in winning 2.6 percent of the vote. A Democratic PAC paid for a late-hour telephone campaign that urged voters to eschew Matheson and Love in favor of Vein.
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 Legislature carved up his district when it redrew congressional boundaries last fall.