Mia Love’s Surprisingly Unsafe 2016 Reelection Prospects

By the numbers, Love represents one of the safest-looking Republican House seats in the country. But recent controversy over taxpayer-funded flights has highlighted a distinct lack of safety, which even her campaign acknowledges.

Mia Love, Republican Mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah, speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference on March 16, 2013 in National Harbor, Maryland.
Pete Marovich AFP/Getty
Sept. 23, 2015, 8 p.m.

On the sur­face, it doesn’t seem like Rep. Mia Love of Utah should have to worry about her reelec­tion in 2016. Love is a na­tion­ally re­cog­nized fig­ure as the first Afric­an-Amer­ic­an Re­pub­lic­an wo­man in Con­gress, and she rep­res­ents a dis­trict that Mitt Rom­ney won by 38 per­cent­age points in 2012 and where Demo­crats only made up only 11 per­cent of act­ive voters in 2014.

But some­how, all signs point to a tough cam­paign for Love—something that even her own cam­paign ac­know­ledges, as it plans to go neg­at­ive on her Demo­crat­ic op­pon­ent. And Love’s situ­ation hasn’t been helped by shift­ing stor­ies over what star­ted as a minor con­tro­versy about $1,160 in tax­pay­er money, put­ting her in the news for the wrong reas­ons.

Love’s of­fice spent that money on air­fare to Wash­ing­ton to at­tend the glitzy White House Cor­res­pond­ents As­so­ci­ation din­ner. It’s not an of­fi­cial event, and at first, Love told The Hill that she traveled to D.C. to hold a strategy meet­ing with her chief of staff and just happened to also at­tend the din­ner. Love ended up re­pay­ing the money to the gov­ern­ment, but her of­fice’s story has shif­ted throughout.

Com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or Richard Pi­att later told Na­tion­al Journ­al there was no form­al meet­ing or spe­cif­ic time set ahead of time for a meet­ing, and that Love and her staff met in­form­ally throughout the week­end.

Love also ini­tially told The Hill that she ran the trip by the House Eth­ics and Ad­min­is­tra­tion Com­mit­tees. Pi­att said Love didn’t ac­tu­ally get per­mis­sion or guid­ance from either com­mit­tee about her trip.

“Ad­min­is­tra­tion sent her a copy of the guidelines and those are the words she used to come to con­clu­sion that she did,” he said, adding in a state­ment: “Rep. Love paid the money for travel back, and the tax­pay­ers have been made whole. … The of­fice has taken steps to make sure this nev­er hap­pens again.”

Love, mean­while, de­clined to an­swer any ques­tions. “I’ve already put up a state­ment. It’s over. It’s not an is­sue. There isn’t any­thing to talk about,” Love said.

Des­pite the small amount of money in ques­tion, the is­sue has garnered cov­er­age by loc­al and na­tion­al me­dia as Love struggled to ex­plain her reas­on­ing for us­ing tax­pay­er money for the tick­ets.

That plays right in­to the hands of Demo­crats who have already painted Love as a creature of D.C. rather than Utah. Love burst onto the na­tion­al polit­ic­al scene as a fea­tured speak­er at the 2012 Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Con­ven­tion.

“Mia Love, the night Rom­ney was nom­in­ated, got three-and-a-half minutes, ba­sic­ally in prime time,” said Tim Chamb­less, a polit­ic­al sci­ence pro­fess­or at the Uni­versity of Utah who is af­fil­i­ated with the school’s Hinckley In­sti­tute of Polit­ics. “It’s really im­port­ant that the Re­pub­lic­an Party gets Mia Love reelec­ted.”

For any­one else rep­res­ent­ing a dis­trict this safe by the num­bers, even the neg­at­ive press might not mat­ter. But Love’s struggles didn’t be­gin with her April plane tick­ets. She shock­ingly lost her 2012 run for Con­gress after her RNC ap­pear­ance, even as Rom­ney romped through Utah. And she mys­ter­i­ously struggled more than an­ti­cip­ated in 2014, win­ning by only 3 per­cent­age points dur­ing a na­tion­al GOP wave.

Love’s op­pon­ent, at­tor­ney Doug Owens, clearly over­achieved in 2014: His vote total ad­ded up to with­in a few thou­sand votes of every Demo­crat and in­de­pend­ent who cast a bal­lot in the dis­trict put to­geth­er. But Owens, whose fath­er served in Con­gress, is cam­paign­ing for the seat again, and polit­ic­al con­di­tions could be more fa­vor­able for Demo­crats in 2016.

Mean­while, there’s also some evid­ence that Love her­self is not par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar at home, re­gard­less of her op­pon­ent. An Au­gust poll by Dan Jones and As­so­ci­ates found Love’s fa­vor­able rat­ing in the dis­trict barely above even: 48 per­cent to 46 per­cent. (The por­tion of the poll cov­er­ing Love’s dis­trict did have a re­l­at­ively large mar­gin of er­ror, though.)

Dave Hansen, a cam­paign ad­viser for Love, is not tak­ing those num­bers lightly. For one, he says Love has not got­ten enough cred­it for win­ning in a dis­trict that he said is de­cept­ively com­pet­it­ive. Be­fore Love won it last year, Demo­crat­ic Rep. Jim Math­eson held down the seat. Hansen said the dis­trict’s re­gis­tra­tion num­bers are mis­lead­ing be­cause Re­pub­lic­ans have closed primar­ies and Demo­crats have open primar­ies in Utah, which means voters have noth­ing to gain by re­gis­ter­ing with the Demo­crat­ic Party.

“It isn’t a sol­id Re­pub­lic­an dis­trict,” Hansen said. “It prob­ably leans Re­pub­lic­an but not that much. These voters will vote for a Demo­crat.”

(Chamb­less called that “the pos­it­ive spin” on Love’s close call last year, say­ing this dis­trict was drawn to get a Re­pub­lic­an about 62 per­cent of the vote.)

Mean­while, Hansen told Na­tion­al Journ­al that Love already plans to run a more neg­at­ive cam­paign against Owens than she did in 2014. He ex­plained that when Love first ran for Con­gress in 2012, chal­len­ging Math­eson, she ran a tough race and got the repu­ta­tion of a neg­at­ive cam­paign­er. She then took it easy on Owens to make up for it in 2014, Hansen said.

“There’s not one neg­at­ive thing that was said about Doug Owens,” Hansen said. “He’s kept whack­ing away at her but there was noth­ing neg­at­ive said about Owens. … As far as not men­tion­ing your op­pon­ent, that might not work this time.”

Demo­crats agree that the race will be com­pet­it­ive again in 2016 des­pite Re­pub­lic­ans’ ad­vant­age in Love’s dis­trict: When asked who some of the top Demo­crat­ic con­gres­sion­al re­cruits are this cycle, Owens was the first name out of Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee Chair­man Ben Ray Lu­jan’s mouth in a re­cent in­ter­view with C-SPAN’s “News­makers.”

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