Mia Love Is Clear Front-Runner for Matheson Seat

Love is running for Congress for a second time. (Chris Maddaloni CQ/Roll Call File Photo)

For an ambitious Republican, there is no more attractive House seat than that of retiring Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah — but the congressman's former foe could be strong enough to hold off a run on the seat.

Matheson's retirement announcement Tuesday turned a top GOP pickup opportunity into a seat for which national Democrats may not compete for the foreseeable future. No names of potential candidates emerged in the immediate aftermath, but anyone jumping in now would face a truncated timeline and a challenging race for the GOP nomination ahead.

Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love, who lost to Matheson by 768 votes in 2012, got a jump on the GOP competition by kicking off her campaign early this cycle. With the state's top campaign operative on board and nearly $700,000 in the bank by the end of September, there is a sentiment in the state that her head start could be too much to overcome.

"I think Mia Love is too formidable right now," said Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics. "She has the name ID, the money and now she has Dave Hansen who is about the most respected campaign manager. So if you’re taking a look at your ability to win, it’s hard to see anybody who doesn’t start out behind in all major campaign considerations."

Love told CQ Roll Call in March that it was important to ramp up the campaign early so that she's not starting from behind again — financially and organizationally. That was during an interview at the Conservative Political Action Conference just outside of Washington, D.C., where activists from around the country descend annually.

Still, given the heavy Republican tilt of the district and the lack of perhaps the only Democrat capable of carrying it, the list of candidates will undoubtedly grow. Love's GOP competition currently includes just one other candidate, businessman Bob Fuehr, but some expect a much longer list of candidates to emerge.

"Well she’s been working it for a long time," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. "But it’s just a question of how many dozen candidates run."

Utah Republicans said Love has been aggressively campaigning and fundraising, setting herself up for a strong performance at the April 26 state nominating convention. If she wins 60 percent of the locally elected delegates, Love will emerge with the nomination — as she did last cycle. Otherwise, the top two vote-getters will face off in a June 24 primary.

"I think we may have more that will enter because it’s attractive," Utah GOP Chairman James Evans said. "But I think also they will factor in that Mia’s been in there for some time, and they may see that it’s not going to be an easy challenge."

In a statement Tuesday, Love wished Matheson well but said her congressional campaign won't change much as a result of his retirement. That may be true of the convention fight, but the eventual nominee will now be heavily favored in the general election. That would not have been true with Matheson in the race.

"Congressman Matheson has served our state with passion and has been a dedicated public servant during his tenure in Congress," Love said. "His announcement today does not change my campaign to represent the people of Utah’s 4th congressional district. I wish Congressman Matheson the very best during his final year as Congressman."