SALT LAKE CITY — Anyone questioning the existence of a “blue wave” of Democratic voters surging toward control of the U.S. House in Tuesday’s midterm elections just needs to look at Utah’s 4th Congressional District race, national experts say.
“There’s no question there’s a Democratic wave. If there wasn’t, we wouldn’t be talking about this seat,” David Wasserman, who analyzes House races around the country for the Cook Political Report, told the Deseret News.
But he and others, including NBC News, said it remains to be seen whether the wave is strong enough in Utah to carry Democratic Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams to victory over Republican Rep. Mia Love in her bid for a third term.
“The district is traditionally so Republican, we would not go so far as to say McAdams is the favorite,” Wasserman said, noting nonpartisan Washington-D.C. -based election analysts continue to rate the race as a toss-up.
The traditional midterm backlash against the party that holds the White House, already magnified this year because of strong feelings on both sides toward President Donald Trump, is especially powerful in the 4th District, Wasserman said.
“Utah is its own political world at the moment because it’s so fundamentally Republican, but it’s also fundamentally anti-Trump. That’s creating big problems for Love,” he said, referring to the GOP president’s lukewarm support in the state.
NBC senior political editor Mark Murray told the Deseret News that the Love-McAdams race is one of 50 or so throughout the United States that are just too close to call, but is a potential “wave builder” for the Democrats.
“It really could go either way on election night,” Murray said. “From a national perspective, if Democrats end up winning Utah 4, it is really hard to see how they don’t end up getting the majority of the House of Representatives.”
He said the Utah district, which includes portions of Salt Lake and Utah counties, would likely have to be part of a larger win for Democrats than the party just picking up the 23 seats needed to take control.
Should McAdams upset the two-term incumbent on Tuesday, Murray said that “just tells me that was a big, strong Democratic night,” with a shift of at least 30 seats from red to blue.
He said he was not that surprised the Utah race was competitive, but added that even with national Democratic momentum and a candidate he sees as the best recruit Utah Democrats could hope for, it’s still a 50-50 race.
Only one major national ratings entity, FiveThirtyEight, has moved the race to leaning Democratic. Another, Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball from the University of Virginia, continues to see it as leaning Republican.
Most polls throughout the race have been close, with a New York Times poll last week showing a 45-45 tie between the candidates, although a Dixie Strategies poll for KUTV put McAdams up by 7 points.
Several million dollars is pouring in from national partisan groups to pay for negative TV commercials against both Love and McAdams in a race with a price tag expected to climb well above $10 million.
The race is seen as such a squeaker that Utah Elections Director Justin Lee warned it probably won’t be decided Tuesday. Because the election is being conducted largely by mail, the candidates are likely to want to wait for all ballots to come in.
“I would not count on calling that race on election night,” Lee said.
Utah political observers point to the money being spent on polling and advertising from outside for one of the nation’s most reliably Republican states as evidence it’s playing a key role in the election.
Jason Perry, head of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, said Utah attracts attention because the state has “a perspective that is respected in Washington” on issues such as immigration.
“For a red state, our approach is not like what you would see in other states that historically vote for Republicans. We have a Utah way,” Perry said, that attempts to emphasize efforts to bring people together on contentious issues.
“Politics is not getting any nicer here than it is in other places, but at the heart of the discussions is a Utah model,” he said. “It is that environment that gives the possibility for a moderate Democrat to rise.”
It’s also an environment that can put Utah voters at odds with the president. Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said Trump looms large over the 4th District race.
“Utah is unique. It’s a Republican place that is not necessarily highly supportive of Donald Trump. That hurts Republican candidates, especially in places where there’s a high-quality challenger,” Karpowitz said, while energizing Democrats.
Utah GOP Chairman Rob Anderson said Love’s race is 29th on the Republican National Committee’s priority list, high for a Utah seat but outside the margin seen as seriously threatening the party’s control of the House.
“It’s somewhat unfortunate this is such a tight race,” Anderson said. “It speaks to the more moderate and maybe a little more voter apathy. They’re not so worried about the R or D being back in Congress.”
But for Utah Democratic Party Chairwoman Daisy Thomas, the closeness of the race is a reflection of her party’s efforts to turn the country from red to blue after losing the 2016 presidential election.
“I hope a lot of us saw this coming. We’re working hard constantly,” Thomas said. “Honestly, I think people realize that the nation’s soul is on the line right now, who we are as a nation.”
What the national media seems to be most interested in about the race to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch is not whether Mitt Romney will win, but how he’ll get along with Trump.
Romney, the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee who is one of Utah’s most popular political figures after leading the 2002 Winter Olympics, has polled far ahead of Democrat Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson and has spent time campaigning for fellow Republicans out of state.
“The expectation is that in a lot of ways, Mitt Romney would end up being what we’ve seen from (retiring Republican Arizona Sen.) Jeff Flake,” said Murray, the NBC senior political editor.
“It’s someone who is supporting the Republican agenda 95 percent of the time but, from time to time, trying to be a moral voice in a very interesting political environment in Washington, D.C.,” he said.
Murray said a run by Romney, who lost his White House bid to President Barack Obama in 2012, was always going to attract national attention as a candidate in Utah.
But even that kind of star power might not be enough to help Love, Wasserman said. Romney has backed Love in this and other campaigns, including her first unsuccessful bid for Congress in 2012.
Then, she was running against the last Democrat to serve in Congress from Utah, former Rep. Jim Matheson. Matheson’s retirement in 2014 opened the door for Love to win in the 4th District then and again in 2016.
Romney’s coattails, Wasserman said, are not that strong.
“Most voters in this district pay very close attention to candidates,” he said. “They personally like Mitt Romney but even when Romney was on the ballot as the Republican nominee in 2012, Mia Love lost.”