SALT LAKE CITY — Republicans threw everything they had at Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson, but like the Road Runner, he dodged the big red anvil barreling down on his head.
An articulate, charismatic candidate. A gerrymandered congressional district. National GOP backing. Millions of dollars. Big-name endorsements. Mitt Romney.
Rising Republican star Mia Love had an arsenal never afforded a Utah candidate before. But the iron block hit the ground with a thud as it usually does when Wile E. Coyote tries to take out his elusive nemesis.
And after the dust settled late Tuesday, Matheson was on his way to a seventh term in Washington now representing Utah's new 4th Congressional District.
"This race seemed like a perfect storm against him, and he still prevailed," said Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. "It's hard to see another circumstance where they can take him out without a major mistake, and he hasn't made one so far."
Matheson beat Love 49.3 percent to 48.1 percent, a difference of 2,818 votes. Libertarian Jim Vein picked up the remaining 2.6 percent. Provisional and absentee ballots had yet to be counted, but state elections director Mark Thomas said it's unlikely they would make a difference in the outcome. Love conceded the race Tuesday.
"I think it just shows the roots he and his family have in Utah and the trust he has built up over his 12 years of service and his family's decades of service to Utah," Jowers said.
Matheson's father, the late Scott M. Matheson, served two terms as governor. His brother, Scott M. Matheson Jr., served as U.S. Attorney for Utah and is now a federal appeals court judge.
Jowers also described Matheson as a "phenomenal" campaigner.
Salt Lake County proved to be a key battleground in the tight contest.
A Deseret News/KSL poll just days before the election had 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 54 percent in the county. Love won Utah, Juab and Sanpete counties, which account for fewer votes.
Utah Democratic Party chairman Jim Dabakis said it appears turnout among Democrats was high.
"That was a factor. Base Democrats voted more than usual," Dabakis said.
Both candidates ran negative campaigns, with many of the attack ads coming from outside groups such as National Republican Congressional Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
"I think Mia got the short end of a very negative campaign," said Thomas Wright, Utah Republican Party chairman. "He was the more effective negative campaigner."
Dabakis said it's hard to say whether one side was dirtier than the other.
"In Jim's defense, he's never had a campaign that was negative before. It's not his way. He was responding. But it wasn't Mia's fault either," he said.
Dabakis and Wright agree that SuperPACs must go. Groups opposing Love shelled out $2.9 million, while those against Matheson spent $2.7 million. The content of those ads and mailers are out of the candidates' control.
"I think Jim and Mia were victims in this whole thing," Dabakis said.
Wright said it was tough for voters to get to know Love because because she had to defend herself from a barrage of mischaracterizations. Meantime, Love tried to point out Matheson's voting record, which Wright said was fair game but came across as negative.
"In this business, it's a whole lot of perception," said Dave Hansen, a former Utah GOP chairman who ran Sen. Orrin Hatch's successful re-election bid.
And in the 4th District, Hansen said, voters probably perceived the Love campaign as more negative, which worked against her.
The so-called Romney tsunami or the lack thereof also was a factor. Republicans were stunned that the GOP presidential candidate's coattails weren't as long as they had expected. Not only did Matheson win but so did Democrat Ben McAdams in the Salt Lake County mayor's race.
Hansen said the anticipated Romney effect was "more hype" then reality and might have actually driven Democrats to the polls.
Matheson said he trusts Utah voters to consider each contest individually.
"The presidential race is on one part of the ballot; the congressional race is on another," he said. "I've been on the ballot before when there's been strong Republican presidential candidates, but Utahns value their votes. They look at each race on on their own merits. That's why I succeed."
Whether Love, the mayor of Saratoga Springs, puts on the gloves again in a big arena remains to be seen. She did not return a call for comment Wednesday.
"I think she does have a future," Wright said. "It's a question of what she wants to do."
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