SALT LAKE CITY — Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson knocked off some of Utah's most conservative Republicans in his six previous congressional campaigns.
Mia Love, his 2012 GOP challenger, is fond of saying the six-term congressman hasn't seen a candidate like her. True, but in terms of politics how much different is she than Matheson casualties John Swallow or LaVar Christensen or Morgan Philpot?
Except for Philpot, they all preceded the rise of the tea party but certainly would have worn that label. Though Love tries to avoid the tag, she identifies with the movement and has the national tea party organization FreedomWorks in her corner.
"Mia Love is right in line with the other challengers. If anything, she is probably politically right of those challengers," said University of Utah political science professor Tim Chambless, who has closely watched each of Matheson's elections.
Love, the mayor of Saratoga Springs, has talked of wanting to eliminate the U.S. departments of education and energy. Her plan for balancing the federal budget includes $750 billion in cuts, including food assistance for poor people, school lunch programs, special education aid, subsidized college loans and earned income tax credits.
Those ideas, Love said, were put out to start a discussion and nothing is set in stone.
Matheson said such talk puts her "much more out on the fringe" than any of his past opponents and "way beyond" what most Utahns think on critical issues.
Love counters that Matheson's support of President Barack Obama and favoring things such as federal stimulus money makes this election a new ballgame. "He's completely changed. He no longer puts Utah first," she said.
A Dan Jones & Associates poll last month showed Matheson leading Love 53 percent to 38 percent in Utah's new 4th Congressional District. But political observers expect the gap to tighten come November.
"Mayor Love will be a far more difficult matchup for Matheson than his past opponents because she is likable, charismatic and has no record of votes and/or message bills that can be used against her," said Kirk Jowers, head of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the U.
Matheson disagrees that Love doesn't have a political record, citing a property tax rate that has grown considerably during her tenure in Saratoga Springs.
Swallow, Christensen and Philpot all served in the Utah Legislature where they built wider known reputations as very conservative lawmakers.
"What they had in common was they were white, male Republicans who thought they could defeat Jim Matheson, and they lost," Chambless said.
Love is unlike her unsuccessful predecessors, he said. "She is not a lawyer. She also is not a white male. The Republican Party has tried that six times and failed six times."
Philpot, who fell about 5 percent short in 2010, said there is a question about whether Love is a moderate or conservative Republican. "We hear what she says, but we hear what a lot of politicians say. The good thing for her is that it might not really matter."
Swallow, the GOP candidate for attorney general, said he really doesn't know Love's political philosophy well but she "sounds like a real conservative."
As she has said many times, Love said she won't allow anyone to put her in a box, reiterating her mantra of fiscal discipline, personal responsibility and smaller government.
"To me, that's a pretty big tent. Anybody who's concerned about those things, that's who I represent," she said.
Unlike in 2002 and 2004 when he lost to Matheson, Swallow said the political climate is right for a Republican to beat the congressman.
Voters, he said, aren't pleased with Congress and the Obama administration and presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney will bring people to the polls. And Love is a "fresh, energetic, charismatic" candidate with a "compelling" story to tell, he said. She also has the backing of U.S. House leaders, and the National Republican Congressional Committee promised her $948,000 after Labor Day for TV ads targeting Matheson.
"I think you've go the perfect storm for someone to finally do it, to unseat Jim Matheson," said Swallow, who lost to Matheson by a mere 1,641 votes in 2002.
Philpot said when he ran in 2010 there were two races to run — one against the notion that Matheson couldn't be beat and another against the congressman himself.
"Mia doesn't have that. I think the perception is Jim can be beat. She doesn't have to win the campaign everyone else has had to win right off the bat," Philpot said.
Love has already shown herself to be a tough campaigner, having dispatched four candidates at the state GOP convention, including two high-profile former state legislators, Chambless said.
Matheson has held Utah's 2nd District for 12 years despite it being one of the most Republican in the country. Not much changed in that regard in the newly drawn 4th District where he has now cast his lot. The Blue Dog Demcorat has won by pulling independent voters and Republicans his way.
"I think people know I'm an independent voice. I always put Utah first," he said, adding he's willing to take on either party when necessary.
Jowers said he thinks 4th District voters would be happy with either Matheson or Love and wish that both could go to Washington.
"That is a great situation for voters, but murder for campaign consultants desperate to give their respective candidates the edge without alienating the undecided voters," he said.
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