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."