SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The first black female Republican in Congress is facing a tough challenge from a well-known Democratic mayor in a largely suburban Utah district where many say they are wary of President Donald Trump.
U.S. Rep. Mia Love has sought to create some distance from the president while challenger Ben McAdams criticizes her record and pitches himself as a moderate.
The tight race also has a potential down-ballot wild card: A hotly contested medical-marijuana proposal that could bring out new voters.
Love, considered a rising star in the GOP, is fighting to keep her seat in a race targeted by national Democrats hoping to regain control of the House. She contends that she stands up to Trump on issues like immigration and trade.
“I wasn’t sent to Washington to walk in lockstep behind the president, or just be there and fight everything,” she said in an interview with The Associated Press, pointing to the federal tax overhaul as a GOP accomplishment.
McAdams, meanwhile, is seeking to burnish his image as a family man planted firmly on the political middle ground who would not support California Rep. Nancy Pelosi as House Speaker if the Democrats gain control. “I don’t like President Trump, but that’s not going to stop me from working with him,” he told The AP.
In another year, a Democrat would have little chance of making serious headway against a GOP incumbent in a Utah district where Republicans hold a 3-to-1 registration margin.
This year, it’s a dead heat.
Utah voters, though generally conservative, have long been wary of Trump’s brash style and comments about women and immigrants. While Republican politicians elsewhere have fallen after running afoul of the president, Utah GOP voters picked onetime critic Mitt Romney as Senate nominee in a landslide.
Love’s district includes suburbs of blue Salt Lake City, where anti-Trump sentiment runs particularly high.
Aaron Wood of Orem, who works with people with disabilities and is concerned about possible cuts to programs like Social Security, said he’s leaning toward voting for McAdams because he feels like Love is too closely aligned with Trump.
“It’s a problem and not a good direction for Utah,” he said.
The candidates exchanged sharp words during a debate on Monday, with McAdams accusing Love of supporting cuts to Social Security and environmental regulations while failing to be available at town halls.
“I feel like you’ve changed, honestly, you went to Washington and you’ve changed,” he said.
Love says he is distorting her record. She said she supports reforms to Social Security for younger people as well as compromise environmental legislation and is available to voters in small groups or telephone town halls.
“We have to let people know honesty still means something, integrity still means something,” she said.
The race could be affected by factors that have little to do directly with either candidate.
Voters will also be deciding on a medical-marijuana ballot proposal opposed by the highly influential Mormon church. The faith now backs a compromise to legalize it with strict regulations.
The issue could bring more people to the polls, said Damon Cann, a political scientist at Utah State University. New voters can register on Election Day for the first time this year.
McAdams says he’ll vote for the medical marijuana ballot proposal, while Love said she supports the compromise but wouldn’t say if she’ll vote for it.
While that issue could be a bump for McAdams, the ballot also holds a potential lift for Love with Romney’s high-profile Senate run. The record there is mixed, though: His presidential candidacy didn’t lift her to victory over a well-known Democrat in 2012.
Love, a daughter of Haitian immigrants, became the country’s first black female Republican in the U.S. House in 2014. She was clear when asked whether her race runs counter to a national narrative about more minority women running for office, mostly Democrats: “Diversity is great for them until you actually have an independent thought.”
McAdams’ six years as mayor included going undercover as a homeless person pushing back against a tax breaks for a once-planned Facebook data center.