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Deseret News
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, left, is the Democratic candidate for Utah's 4th Congressional District. Republican Mia Love, right, will face him in November's election.

SALT LAKE CITY — "Mia Love’s $1 Million Campaign Finance Scandal Latest in Career of Ethics Abuses," a national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee email proclaimed about a critical CNN report early last week about her fundraising.

It wasn't long after that the two-term Republican congresswoman debuted the first negative TV commercial of the campaign, labeling her Democratic opponent, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, a "tax and spend Democrat."

Both claims are being disputed by the targeted candidates and their campaigns as the tension in what was already the most competitive race on the November ballot continues to ratchet up.

Making the 4th Congressional District race even more heated is new polling showing the matchup is either too close to call, with McAdams now just three points behind the incumbent, or that the lead Love has held throughout is widening.

"It's taken a more negative tone," said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, although that's to be expected in a race considered a toss-up by at least one national rating entity.

What's different here, Karpowitz said, is that Love was the first to run a negative ad.

"Typically, when things go negative, it's the challenger trying to raise concerns about the incumbent. Here it's the incumbent who's taking the lead in criticizing the challenger," he said.

That means regardless of what some of the polling is suggesting, Love's campaign expects a tough fight, according to Karpowitz. "It's more aggressive as a strategy and it's certainly one that can be seen as concern about the competitiveness of the race."

Not so, said Love's campaign manager, Dave Hansen.

He said the TV commercial — and its timing — have "absolutely nothing to do" with reports that the Federal Election Commission is questioning Love's campaign about raising $1 million for the June 26 primary election even though she was unopposed.

Love has informed the FEC that her campaign will return or redesignate contributions received after the April 21 Republican Party convention where she was formally nominated as the party's general election candidate.

That's expected to amount to about $370,000 in contributions being designated for the general election and a refund of less than $10,000 in contributions, according to her campaign.

Hansen said similar observations made by political pundits in 2016 about Love choosing to run what he termed "contrast" rather than negative TV commercials were proved wrong.

Two years ago, Love won re-election after going after her Democratic opponent, attorney Doug Owens, the son of late Utah Congressman Wayne Owens, for his efforts to stop Legacy Highway in an early TV commercial.

This election, her second TV spot features unhappy passengers on what appears to be McAdams' orange campaign bus as a narrator says he's backed tax increases while opposing tax cuts and adding high-paid aides.

"We wanted to make people understood the real Ben McAdams," Hansen said. "He's a big government guy. He's not this fiscal conservative that he would like people to think. He's this tax and spend liberal."

McAdams' campaign sent out a four-page "fact check" disputing the commercial's claims line-by-line and raising questions about how it was funded, linking to the CNN story about Love's campaign improperly raising funds.

"It's no surprise to see them desperately launching attack ads to distort the mayor's record," McAdams campaign manager Andrew Roberts said. "She's in an incredibly difficult situation in this race."

McAdams has a new TV commercial, too, set to begin airing Monday, featuring a pair of Republicans — Draper Mayor Troy Walker and former state lawmaker Sheryl Allen — touting his bipartisan efforts, including on the county budget.

"I will always put Utah, not party, first," McAdams says from the driver's seat of his campaign bus. The commercial, however, doesn't mention he's a Democrat. It also makes no reference to Love.

Roberts said that's because McAdams is confident in his internal polling, which shows a race within the margin of error. "The mayor, I think, has a very strong case to make for himself. We don't feel like we need to climb in the mud to beat Mia Love."

Karpowitz said it's not clear how much voters will be concerned about Love's FEC troubles.

"I think that it's not going to be the issue that's at the forefront of most voters' minds," the political science professor said, but it's likely the McAdams campaign will make sure they know about it.

"It's not been an auspicious start for Mia Love, I think, with the accusations about the campaign finance problems," Karpowitz said. "They are serious potential violations of campaign finance law."

Roberts said the issue isn't going away and called the contributions illegal. So did the spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Drew Godinich, who said Love is "another typical D.C. political insider who believes that the rules don’t apply to her."

Godinich also said Love should give back all of the more than $1 million raised before the primary and brought up past issues, including her having to repay travel costs to attend a White House Correspondents Dinner in 2015.

"She may just be a sophomore in Congress, but when it comes to violating ethics and campaign laws, Congresswoman Mia Love is an old pro," the national campaign committee news release said.

Hansen said the "money was not raised illegally" and that the FEC hasn't suggested it was.

"They're asking, 'Why did you do it that way?' They never accused the campaign. They never said we did anything wrong. They never made an insinuations that way at all. They were just asking questions. We responded," Hansen said.

A deputy press officer for the FEC, Christian Hilland, said the type of letter Love received was routine and the response will be reviewed to determine if the action taken to correct the concerns raised is adequate.

That includes checking to see if refunds or redesignations of the contributions in question appear on the congresswoman's next campaign financial disclosures, due in mid-October, he said.

If the response falls short, the FEC could simply send a letter reminding the campaign that it needs to comply. The FEC does have the authority to assess civil penalties that are determined by the agency's commissioners, Hilland said.

But there is no time frame for the FEC to make a determination, he said, nor would those findings be made public.

Kirk Jowers, a Republican attorney with more than 20 years of experience serving as legal counsel for candidates in federal races on FEC and other campaign matters, said the controversy over the letter Love received is "much ado about nothing."

Jowers was named last year as a member of Love's campaign finance committee.

He said contributions are redesignated "all the time and campaigns receive RFAIs (requests for additional information letters) frequently," especially in Utah because of the state's unique caucus and convention system for nominating candidates.

That system allows for another opportunity to raise money in addition to the primary and general elections, so the federal contribution limit for Utah candidates from a donor can be as high as $8,100 compared to $5,400 in other states, Jowers said.

Candidates nationwide are allowed to raise money for a primary as well as a general election even if they don't have any opposition, he said, but that's not the case for the third fundraising cycle in Utah.

Jowers said there should be no disputing that Love was allowed to raise funds for the primary. The question is when she should have stopped once it was clear she had no opposition and could not take advantage of the additional fundraising cycle.

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"It does get into the weeds," Jowers said, calling it an administrative matter he doesn't believe will impact the outcome of the election.

Karpowitz said the the friction in the race will likely intensify.

"We can always hope it becomes more issue-oriented. That would be great," he said. "What we're seeing is the campaign is heating up as we're heading into the fall, so it's not surprising that we're getting more heated rhetoric on both sides."

Clarification: An earlier version failed to did note that Kirk Jowers was named last year to Love's campaign finance committee.