Gehrke: Contrary to Trump’s delusions, if Utah Rep. Mia Love loses her House seat, he is largely to blame

President Donald Trump speaks to CNN journalist Jim Acosta during a news conference in the East Room of the White House, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

For the better part of a year, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams bopped around on his big orange bus, a bus that Republican Rep. Mia Love did her best to not end up underneath, only to get completely run over Wednesday by the Trump Train.

I’m not sure I should feel happy or sad,” Trump said about Republicans who didn’t cozy up to him and ended up losing Tuesday in his trademark bizarre, disjointed and self-aggrandizing fashion.

Then he started calling out those members — from his own party, mind you — by name.

“Mia Love. She called me all the time to help her with a hostage situation,” Trump said, referring to Utahn Josh Holt, who was held captive in a Venezuelan prison. “But Mia Love gave me no love. And she lost. Too bad. Sorry about that, Mia.”

It felt almost like watching someone visiting a friend in the hospital then trying to smother them with a pillow.

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

This is politics in a post-irony age, when a historically unpopular president proves to be such a liability that his party loses big in the midterm elections and, somehow, blames the candidates for treating him like a skunk with ebola.

Oh, hey, by the way: Love hasn’t lost yet and there is a decent chance she’ll end up winning once the rest of the ballots are counted. But Trump has never been one to get bogged down by reality.

The president’s petty little score-settling prompted Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox to ponder on Twitter: “Interesting question — if he had attacked her like this a week ago, would it have actually helped her win?”

And the answer: It’s quite possible.

Trump’s understanding of campaigning is simple: Attack! Divide! And pump up your base with whatever crisis or conspiracy is playing well on Fox News that afternoon.

But that is a recipe for failure in Utah and in the 4th District, in particular.

That’s because roughly two out of every five voters in the district are unaffiliated and they have truly demonstrated their independence in every race since the district was created. To win, both McAdams and Love had to assume their base wasn’t going to abandon them and then try to cater their message to those unaffiliated voters.

From Love’s perspective, sidling up to Trump was not an effective way to do that. Why? Because Trump only won 39 percent of the vote in the 4th District in 2016. On top of that, multiple pre-election polls conducted just before the election, including The Salt Lake Tribune and Hinckley Institute poll, showed Trump’s disapproval was about 55 percent. Among undecided voters, one poll found that more than two-thirds had an unfavorable opinion of the president.

With no upside and obvious risk, why would Love want to get that stink on her?

It didn’t help Love that the president steered the message during the final weeks of the campaign away from, say, economic growth, tax cuts and the Supreme Court and instead hammered a fear-mongering message about refugees fleeing chaos in Central America.

It’s a message particularly ill-suited for Utah’s 4th. One politico I talked to this week told me that a national pollster working in Utah was shocked that the state actually tends to be more progressive than the rest of the country when it comes to immigration.

And if the content was bad, the tone is worse. Mitt Romney actually bragged that he is more of a hardliner on immigration than Trump, but his tone is certainly less xenophobic than the president’s and plays better among mainstream voters.

It’s why the McAdams campaign made a point of reminding voters that Love voted with Trump 96 percent of the time — more than any other member of the delegation. The biggest favor Trump could’ve done wouldn’t have been to campaign on Love’s behalf, it would have been to attack her for giving him “no love” three weeks ago.

There are apparently about 205,000 votes left to be counted in Salt Lake and Utah counties, although it’s unclear how many of them are in the 4th District.

Here’s something we can be clear about: No matter what the president thinks, if Love is able to find enough votes among those remaining to scratch out a victory, she will do it in spite of Trump, not because of him.

And wouldn’t that make for an awkward moment at the White House Christmas party?