Mia Love
Mia Love

Credit: Michael.Jolly/Michael Jolly on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).

(WOMENSENEWS)–In Utah, Rep. Jim Matheson, a conservative Democrat seeking his seventh term in the House of Representatives, is struggling to hold off Mia Love, a Tea Party star who has a chance at becoming the first African American female Republican in Congress.

The candidates were in a dead heat– 43 percent to 43 percent–in a recent poll conducted by Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and Key Research.

That poll showed Matheson ahead among women by 8 percentage points, while Love led male voters by 7 percentage points. Another poll cited by the Salt Lake Tribune found Love 10 percentage points ahead among likely female voters, a finding Matheson has said wasn’t possible judging by his own polling.

Love will also benefit from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who is very popular in Utah, according to Chris Karpowitz, a professor of political science at Brigham Young University.

“Her primary objective…has been to talk about her personal story” and to “link herself very closely with Mitt Romney,” he said.

Love, the mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah, with a population just under 18,000, and a former city councilperson, was nowhere near the national political radar until she won the Republican nomination for Utah’s new 4th District in April.

By August, she was chosen to speak at the Republican National Convention held in Tampa, Fla., where she stoked the Tea Party’s criticism of big government and packaged in the story of her parents who immigrated to the United States from Haiti with $10 in their pocket.

“When tough times came,” she said during her speech, her parents “didn’t look to Washington. They looked within. So the America I grew up knowing was centered in self-reliance.”

A Shift to Utah

Love was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and grew up in Connecticut. Although she was raised Catholic, after she graduated from the University of Hartford in Hartford, Conn., she joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and moved to Utah in 1998, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

In interviews and speeches her refrain is “You will not be a burden to society. You will give back,” an edict she learned from her father.

Love won her party’s nomination by leapfrogging over two other contenders who have spent years in the state legislature.

In Utah each party holds a convention for delegates chosen by small caucuses around the state. If any nominee gets over 60 percent of the vote at the convention, they seize the nomination and dispense with a larger primary.

When Love snagged 70 percent of the vote in April that’s what happened, surprising political watchers such as Ron Hrebenar, a professor of political science at the University of Utah.

“I was shocked,” said Hrebenar, who added that Love’s charisma and speaking abilities helped her at a convention where a small group of intense people hold major sway over the nomination process.

Room for Debate

Utah is the most Republican-leaning state in the nation according to Gallup polling, which means that Matheson takes conservative positions on a number of issues. But the two candidates still find room for debate.

They have one clear difference over the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which Love has proposed cutting in half. “I believe that it’s not okay to not pay anything,” she said in one debate. “If you earn an income you should pay something, you should have some skin in the game.”

In 2011, the credit ranged from a roughly $5,700 tax credit for families with three children making less than $44,000 to $464 for a childless couple making less than $13,660.

Women represent about 60 percent of those benefiting from the EITC and the Child Tax Credit.

“These are people who are working,” Matheson argued. “They pay Social Security taxes and Medicare taxes…[Ronald] Reagan described this program as the most pro-family, best anti-poverty, best job creation measure to ever come out of Congress.”

Both strive to outdo each other in opposition to health reform.

“I’ve always been against Obamacare,” Matheson said during a debate against Love in September,

Love has criticized Matheson for not voting to repeal the law when he had a chance.

Matheson said he voted against repeal because he was worried about throwing out popular provisions. Instead he waited for the Supreme Court to weigh in, after which he did vote for repeal.

Samantha Kimmey is a writer covering women and politics this election season.

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