SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah Republicans banked heavily on toppling Rep. Jim Matheson, a six-term Democrat in one of the country's most heavily GOP districts.
They recruited Mia Love hoping the 36-year-old mayor of Saratoga Springs and daughter of Haitian immigrants could do what a series of Republicans couldn't for a decade: knock off Matheson, a fiscally conservative "Blue Dog" Democrat. They gave Love millions of dollars and a coveted speaking slot at the Republican National Convention, where she became one of the party's faces of diversity.
It didn't work.
Matheson emerged as the official winner Tuesday with four counties adding absentee and provisional ballots to their vote totals. Matheson prevailed even as his district-wide lead narrowed to 768 on Tuesday, down from 2,646 on Election Night when he declared victory and Love reluctantly conceded defeat.
Salt Lake County officials spent weeks verifying 40,487 mail and provisional ballots — more than half of those ballots were at play in the county's 4th congressional districts and effectively called the election. The clerks had to confirm each voter's eligibility, address and precinct before adding new totals.
Love gained votes in Salt Lake County, on her home turf in smaller Utah County and in rural Juab and Sanpete counties, but it wasn't enough to overcome Matheson's slim lead — the closest of his political career.
"If they couldn't get me this time, I'm not sure they can," Matheson, 52, told The Associated Press. "The moons were lined up for Republicans— they had Mitt Romney on the ticket" as the Republican presidential candidate and backed Love with millions of dollars for an advertising war. "They threw all the money and the kitchen sink at me."
Love was on a family vacation at Disneyland and unavailable for comment, party and campaign officials said Tuesday. Utah Republican Chairman Thomas Wright said he was reluctant to write off the election until the party inspects every absentee ballot that Salt Lake County disqualified — the GOP turnout effort included a major "vote-by-mail drive," he said.
Love could demand a district-wide recount if Matheson's lead dropped from 768 to 488, the number of precincts in the district, he said.
Matheson, the son of a popular former governor, has relied heavily on Republican votes over the years — registration rolls show only 11 percent of 4th district voters are Democrat. Another 39 percent are Republicans with the rest unaffiliated.
Matheson cultivates a right-of-center voting record and was able to cut into Love's Republican base by painting her as an extremist who would cut federal programs from federal student loans to Medicare and Social Security, political analysts say.
"She was unable to persuade enough Republicans to back her," said Quin Monson, director of Brigham Young University's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. "Historically, Matheson has been very successful at peeling away more than a few Republican votes. It's a Republican state and a Republican district. You'd think it would be easy for Republicans to bring back some of those votes, but that hasn't been the case."
Monson added, "It's the same old story for more than 10 years: Matheson casts himself as a moderate, independent voice and his opponent as too extreme and out of touch with his district."
By Tuesday, Matheson captured 119,803 votes to Love's 119,035, according to figures from the four counties.
Love's defeat came as Republicans captured every major Utah race easily, including wins for Gov. Gary Herbert, U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch and three other congressional seats, as well as four seats in the Utah Legislature that were previously held by Democrats.
But when late Election Day returns showed Matheson eking out a narrow victory, a hush fell over the Republican election night headquarters at the Salt Lake City Hilton. Top party officials refused to concede Love had lost. The candidate herself could only offer Matheson congratulations without actually conceding in a speech to supporters.
Love later said she was "absolutely" stunned by the defeat. She would have become the first black woman elected to Congress as a Republican.
A lot of money was on the line. The candidates waged a $10 million-plus advertising war with help from outside groups. The spending by each side was roughly even in Utah's most expensive congressional race.
"She came out of the gates very strong, but he patiently chipped away at her Republican votes," said Monson, who conducted an exit poll Election Night that showed the race was too close to call.
Love got a boost from her speech in August at the Republican National Convention and appeared to be taking a lead in September polls.
But Matheson was just getting started.
"He chipped away at her, by pointing out a lot of potential red flags about her: Her readiness for the job, and ideological position on some of these issues," Monson said. "In particular, he made inroads with older voters on Medicaid and Social Security."
Republicans had only one person to blame.
"They're calling me a spoiler," said Jim Vein, the Libertarian candidate who captured what for him was a surprising 2.5 percent of the vote— enough to put Love over the top.
"I don't feel like a spoiler. Mia Love didn't run her campaign well," said Vein, 53, of Orem. "She said she didn't anticipate me, and others didn't think I'd make a splash. I've gotten some nasty emails and phone calls saying I ruined a good Republican."