Rep. Jim Matheson held onto a narrow 768-vote victory over Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love in Utah’s 4th Congressional District as final returns were announced Tuesday.
The margin was a razor-thin 0.3 percent.
“I went up against the perfect storm of circumstances to beat me: A very powerful presidential candidate on the ballot in Mitt Romney, 75 percent of the district was new because they redrew the boundaries, all kinds of money against me and a real strong effort by my opponent, and I was able to succeed,” Matheson said in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune.
“That tells me I have a group of folks in Utah who believe in me and it gives me a lot of confidence,” he said.
Matheson started the day with a 2,646-vote lead, but he lost votes in Salt Lake, Utah, Sanpete and Juab counties as final totals of provisional and absentee ballots rolled in. The 768-vote win — out of nearly 250,000 votes cast — was the closest of his career.
Love took a big chunk out of Matheson’s lead in heavily Republican Utah County, whacking 1,473 votes from his advantage, but she made more modest gains in each of the other counties — whittling Matheson’s margin by 283 in Salt Lake County, 119 votes in Sanpete and 3 votes in Juab County.
The margin is outside of the 488-vote threshold which would have allowed Love to request a recount.
But Utah Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright said he still has questions about the number of provisional and absentee ballots that were disqualified by the counties — Salt Lake County in particular — and plans to keep pressing for answers until he is satisfied.
“We still don’t know why a lot of absentee ballots were disqualified. … We want to better understand the process so we make sure every single vote is counted,” Wright said. “All we have is a final number and I don’t think any citizen in this state should trust any elected official with a final number. We should be able to ask how they got to that and why.”
Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen, a Democrat, says the Republican Party had poll watchers asking questions about the tallies throughout the process and she was “taken aback” that the party would object to the results now.
“I think I’m just kind of stunned that they’re complaining about it because we try to go to such great lengths to make sure every vote can be counted and there’s a point where you just can’t,” she said.
Nearly 5,000 provisional and absentee ballots were not counted in Salt Lake County. Swensen said more than half of those were cast by voters who were never registered in Utah.
About 950 cast the wrong ballot for the precinct where they lived; about 350 either forgot to sign their absentee ballots or the signatures didn’t match the signatures on file. Some mailed in ballots from previous elections, sent in empty envelopes or blank ballots, or voted in the wrong county — including one voter who provided a home address in Hawaii.
Another 461 voters didn’t provide proof of their current address. In those cases, Swensen said her office checked property records, driver-license records and even the phone book to try to verify the residence.
The state board of canvassers is scheduled to certify the results from each county on Nov. 26. If the Republican Party is still not satisfied at that point, they have 40 days to contest the election.
The Matheson-Love race was the most expensive U.S. House contest in Utah history, with more than $10 million being poured in by the campaigns and outside groups backing both candidates.
Love, who would have been the first black Republican woman in Congress, became a nationally recognized spokeswoman for the party and landed a prime speaking slot at the Republican National Convention, and high-profile Republicans rolled into the state to campaign for her.
Matheson said there is some satisfaction surviving such a tough race — his seventh — and doesn’t expect to have to endure the same dynamics again.
“I don’t think the moon and stars are going to line up against me,” he said. “I think those were all factors that created a pretty tough environment for me and one that I don’t think can be matched again.”
Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, said the money spent by outside Super PACs “disproportionately advantaged the incumbents” like Matheson, because, while he was already well known, Love was an unknown quantity.
He said the 6,439 votes for Libertarian candidate Jim Vein also likely took votes from Love’s total and, in a race as close as this one, could have made a difference.
While Matheson could face tough votes in his coming term and remains a Democrat in a heavily Republican district, Matheson does seem well-positioned politically for the near future, Jowers said.
“It was an incredibly impressive victory for Matheson,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine Matheson ever facing a more difficult set of circumstances with a candidate that is even close to being as well-funded as Mayor Love and it’s hard to imagine him taking a loss in the next decade.”
Clerks in Salt Lake, Utah, Sanpete and Juab counties processed about 72,000 absentee and provisional ballots since the election.
Both campaigns had said they did not anticipate the provisional and absentee ballots to sway the outcome of the election.
Matheson said he felt like his campaign drew clear distinctions between himself and his opponent and made clear that Republicans voting for Romney could also vote for him — and roughly one-in-four Republican voters did, according to Utah Colleges Exit Poll data.
He also set up an aggressive ground game, a combination of voter identification and a get-out-the-vote effort that worked for months to target voters.
“In some ways in a close race anything matters,” he said.
Matheson • 119,803
Love • 119,035
Libertarian Jim Vein • 6,439
Difference between Matheson and Love • 768
Needed to trigger a recount • 488 (one vote per precinct)
Source: Canvass, Salt Lake, Utah, Juab, Sanpete Counties