SALT LAKE CITY — Republican Mia Love won the 4th District congressional race, beating Democrat Doug Owens in the state's most-watched matchup this election year.
Love entered the Salt Lake Hilton hotel ballroom where Republicans gathered for a victory celebration shortly before 11:30 p.m. Tuesday to cheers and chants of "Mia, Mia, Mia" when it was finally clear she had pulled off a victory.
Owens was ahead much of the night, but problems with Salt Lake County data slowed the results, frustrating candidates and their supporters. But with all 525 precincts reporting, Love won with just over 50 percent of the vote to 46.8 percent for Owens.
Love, a former Saratoga Springs mayor, and Owens, the son of the late Utah Congressman Wayne Owens, battled for the seat now held by retiring Rep. Jim Matheson, the only Democratic member of Utah's congressional delegation.
She will be the first black Republican woman in Congress.
"Someone is going to have to turn power back to the people and away from Washington. Tonight you have made history," Love said. "This election is historic because we have raised Utah's voice."
Love told reporters her positive campaign made the difference with voters.
Owens told his fellow Democrats he’ll “absolutely” be back in 2016.
“I’m proud of what we fought for, that we fought for education, for common sense, and for civility and patience and humility in how we approach our civic dialog,” he said.
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said Love is in a different position than the rest of the state's now-all Republican congressional delegation.
"While everyone else won overwhelmingly, Love squeaked by in the midst of a big Republican surge," Karpowitz said. "The narrowness of her victory adds to the importance of her decisions about how to govern."
He said moving in a more conservative direction might please voters in Juab, Sanpete, and Utah County but could alienate voters in Salt Lake County, where he said she lost to Owens by nearly 5,000 votes.
Turnout for the election was estimated at 40 percent of registered voters statewide, with some absentee ballots still to be counted.
While the fourth district was the biggest midterm election race in Utah, nationally the focus was on the successful effort by Republicans to take control of the U.S. Senate. That also has a big impact on Utah.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, stands to become Senate Finance Committee chairman and president pro tempore of the Senate, third in line of succession to the presidency behind the vice president and the U.S. House speaker.
"Miracles happen, you know," Hatch said of the GOP wins in Senate races around the country. "We've always gotten a lot done for Utah, but it's been really almost impossible in the last four years."
Hatch said the results in Tuesday's Senate races are a message for Democrats.
"They better wake up and quit being so dysfunctional," he said, pledging the Senate will take action on a number of issues, including corporate tax reform and repealing the medical device tax that's part of the Affordable Care Act.
The last time there wasn't a Democrat in Utah's congressional delegation was 1996, when Rep. Bill Orton, D-Utah, lost his 3rd District seat, until Matheson was elected to the 2nd District in 2000.
Two years ago, Love lost to Matheson by 768 votes in the then-new 4th District in an expensive election that brought in millions of dollars in outside spending to Utah, flooding the airwaves with political ads from a variety of special interest groups.
This year's race dropped off the national radar when Matheson announced last December that he would not seek an eighth term in Congress, and the seat was seen as the GOP's to lose.
Although Matheson has been mum about his political future, including a possible run in 2016 for the U.S. Senate against Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, there was little doubt Love would run again for Congress.
She quickly hired one of the state's most experienced political operatives, former state GOP chairman Dave Hansen, to run her campaign. Hansen successfully guided Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to victory two years ago.
Owens emerged as Love's Democratic opponent at the beginning of the year. A corporate defense attorney who graduated from Yale Law School, his previous political experience was working on his father's campaigns.
But Owens proved a tough opponent in the predominantly GOP district, despite raising significantly less money. In the final independent poll before Tuesday's election, he had closed the gap to just 5 percentage points.
By mid-October, Love had raised more than $4.6 million for the election, while Owens had collected close to $658,000. Much of her money was from out of state, while the bulk of Owens' contributors live in Utah.
Owens campaigned on being a counter to what he called Love's "extreme" stands from 2012, including doing away with the U.S. Department of Education, and suggested she was avoiding answering questions about her past positions.
Love offered a mostly upbeat message that stayed away from specifics about whether she still held the same positions now. She said Owens was running a negative campaign and attacking her personally.
At their first joint appearance at a debate before the Utah Taxpayers Association in May, Owens repeatedly challenged Love. The pair did not debate again until mid-October, at the Utah Debate Commission matchup.
Their third and final debate last Thursday, on KSL Newsradio's "The Doug Wright Show," was the most contentious. Love said Owens had made a comment about her "LDS values" as a Republican, a charge he denied.
Love led in every poll made public except one, by BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy that had Owens slightly up. Love's pollsters said Tuesday she was up by eight points in their most recent survey.
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