At the recent Republican state convention, Rep. Mia Love teed off on her opponent, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, even before he had won his party’s nomination.
She slammed McAdams for, as she put it, supporting unrestricted abortion, for wanting to undo President Donald Trump’s tax reform, and for being a cog in the Bill and Hillary Clinton machine.
Love told of a conversation she had with her daughter, who said, “If we’re a country that decides we’re going to kill our babies, we’re good for nothing.”
“As an active Mormon, I find this attack offensive [and] not the way we do things in Utah,” McAdams fired back via Twitter. “Typical mudslinging from a typical Washington insider. If she spent time listening to our issues, she could talk about that. We deserve better than partisan rhetoric and personal attacks.”
But for Love, going on the offensive is not just a matter of sound strategy. It could be essential to her political survival for a couple of reasons.
First, Love needs to take some of the shine off McAdams’ well-cultivated, squeaky-clean, “aw shucks” image. If she hangs back and lets McAdams tout his bipartisan work on homelessness, for example, with Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and House Speaker Greg Hughes, she loses the chance to convince voters he’s a liberal in sheep’s clothing.
You only get one chance to make a first impression, as they say, and Love wants to make sure the first impression voters get of McAdams is coming from her.
This isn’t new. I wrote back in November about Love’s efforts to tie McAdams to the Clintons — he interned in the White House in college, did scouting and planning for Bill Clinton’s travel team, and endorsed Hillary’s presidential campaign.
But here’s what I think is equally important for Love: Coming out early and smacking McAdams in the jaw, forcing him to respond, puts him on his heels and keeps the campaign from being about Trump.
And there’s good reason she would want to do that. We’ve seen how thoroughly toxic the Trump brand has been in a slew of special elections. Last week in Arizona, for example, Republican Debbie Lesko held on for a 5-point win in a special election, but that was in a district with a 25-point GOP advantage.
In March, Democrats won a House race in Pennsylvania where there was a 21-point Republican advantage, and in South Carolina last June, a GOP candidate clung to a 3-point win in a district with a 19-point Republican edge.
In the nine federal special elections since Trump took office, Democrats have run 17 points better than the numbers would indicate they should.
The one notable exception was here in Utah, where John Curtis cruised to a win in the special election to replace Jason Chaffetz in the 3rd Congressional District. So is Utah an exception to the Trump effect?
Yes and no, in my mind. It’s important to note that Trump won Utah’s 3rd District by 24 percentage points over Hillary Clinton. He won the 1st District by even more — 27 points. But he won the 4th District by just 7.
Statewide, Trump’s approval rating has generally been hovering in the mid-40 percent range (the most recent Morning Consult poll put it at 45). McAdams’ internal polling gives Trump a 68 percent unfavorable rating in the 4th District.
Even if the numbers aren’t actually that bad, it’s easy to see how Trump’s xenophobic tweets and porn star payoffs, not to mention the lingering Russian cloud, make him unpopular in a district that wasn’t crazy about him in the first place.
And that is likely to be a liability for Love, especially considering she voted with Trump’s positions 96 percent of the time, more than any other member of Utah’s delegation, according to vote tracking by FiveThirtyEight.com.
Yes, Trump still won the district two years ago, but against another unpopular candidate in Hillary Clinton, Brigham Young University political scientist Adam Brown told me.
“I think Utah voters would be much happier voting for someone like Ben McAdams than Hillary Clinton and if I was Mia Love, I wouldn’t sleep much,” he said. “She certainly comes into it as the favorite candidate, but this is a race that could conceivably flip.”
There’s one lifesaver that could help Love stay afloat if the “Democratic wave” does reach Utah, and that’s Mitt Romney’s candidacy — assuming he wins the Republican primary against state Rep. Mike Kennedy.
Romney is popular, of course. At the same time, it’s hard to know whether his name on the ballot will do much to help Love in November.
In 2012, as a presidential candidate, he was at the top of the ticket, but the “Romney Tsunami” that some observers thought would carry Love to a win over then-Rep. Jim Matheson never materialized. McAdams won the county mayor race that same year.
All of this is to say that, despite the advantage of incumbency and a Republican-leaning district, Love can’t afford to take anything for granted. She’s wise to go on the offensive early and voters should be prepared to see a lot more of the intense, no-holds-barred campaigning in the six months ahead.