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Outside groups have spent more than $3.4 million blanketing Utah's airwaves with negative ads questioning Rep. Jim Matheson's honesty and accusing his challenger, Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love, of being soft on crime.

And more is on the way.

The unprecedented campaign funded by political parties and largely unregulated super PACs appears to be picking up steam in Utah's 4th Congressional District contest, one of the most watched House races in the nation. Of the $3.4 million total, more than $1 million has been spent just since the start of October.

Matheson says he's no fan of the spending, even if more than half of it — $1.8 million —has gone to bolster his bid for a seventh term in office.

"I think we are all troubled by how much money is in politics these days," he said. "It tends to push the candidates more off to the sidelines, and that is the thing I find bothersome about it."

Bothersome or not, Matheson helped funnel money to some of the outside groups beating up on Love through his role as co-chairman of the Blue Dog Political Action Committee.

The group of moderate House Democrats sent $700,000 to Center Forward and an equal amount to the House Majority PAC in August. Since then, those two organizations have spent a combined $1.2 million producing and distributing negative ads against Love.

Matheson said he has not coordinated with the PACs, which would violate the law, and he pointed out the Blue Dog donations went out with a letter that included this line: "Please note that this contribution is not earmarked or directed for any particular use or activity."

"There are a lot of Blue Dogs in tough races, and we did not tell them how to spend the money," he said.

Center Forward has spent $2 million on ads in just four races, with nearly $800,000 of that focused on Utah's 4th District. The group is led by a former Blue Dog Democrat and was previously named the Blue Dog Research Forum, though it did spend some money supporting moderate Republicans earlier this year. House Majority PAC, which has spent almost $380,000 helping Matheson, has been active in many close House races nationwide.

Matheson defended the donations to super PACs, even if he has repeatedly decried their impact on his race.

"Why would anyone want to tie one hand behind their back?" he said. "Whether you like the rules of the game or not, you have to play by the rules that are out there."

Matheson has the support of six outside groups, while Love has been primarily backed by the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is controlled by House Republicans. She has recently received support from the tea party group FreedomWorks and the conservative group Center for Individual Freedom.

As of yet, Matheson has received no help from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the counterpoint to the NRCC. But the DCCC has reserved some ad space and may enter the fray as early as this week.

The outside combatants have funded hours and hours worth of ads, almost all of which are negative. Viewers who spend any time watching Utah's main broadcast channels have undoubtedly seen spots with ominous narrators, grainy black and white photos and claims that often stretch the truth.

Matheson argues he has faced more attack ads than Love has, while Love says it's the other way around.

"I have definitely taken the bigger punch," said Matheson. "Because everything the NRCC has done has been negative."

"I disagree with that," Love told The Salt Lake Tribune. "I absolutely believe that our campaign has seen a lot more negative ads."

University of Utah political scientist Matthew Burbank said it has seemed pretty even to him, and he's not surprised by the high level of interest from national players, given Matheson's sticking power in a Republican state. Love is also a historic candidate. If she wins, she would be the first black woman to be elected to Congress as a Republican.

"Both are making good use of the airwaves, and both are following essentially the same strategy," Burbank said. "Start with positive ads about themselves early on and as the campaign has tightened move to more negative ads."

Love said she has attempted to correct the record when she feels an ad is misleading, such as the Patriot Majority USA ads that have said crime in Saratoga Springs has skyrocketed in her term as mayor, when the rate of crime is far less than in Utah County and the state as a whole.

"I think the truth is stronger than the lies," she said.

The more than $3.4 million in outside spending only counts reports filed with the Federal Election Commission and doesn't include money spent on "issue oriented" ads from political nonprofits, that often mention the candidates.

As an example, the American Chemistry Council ran ads in August touting Matheson as a congressmen fighting for Utah jobs. The group paid $30,000 to place the ads and more to create it but hasn't filed a report with the FEC. Crossroads GPS hit Matheson for what it called "reckless spending" in an ad in late 2011 and hasn't filed any public disclosure either, considering it "issue oriented."

Also excluded is all of the money the candidates have raised and spent on their own. Those reports are due Monday and are likely to show hundreds of thousands if not $1 million or more in ad spending.

Love isn't saying whether she has appreciated the outside support from groups like the NRCC, only that she hasn't coordinated with anyone and is focused on what she can control.

"We have been able to raise quite a bit of money and put out our messaging," she said, noting her campaign has raised $1 million since July 1. "I believe that we'll do just as well on our own."

mcanham@sltrib.comTwitter: @mattcanham —

Outside combatants

Third-party groups are spending heavily to back their favorite candidate in Utah's close 4th Congressional District race between Rep. Jim Matheson and Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love.

Groups supporting Mia Love •

$1,076,721 National Republican Congressional Committee

$269,846 FreedomWorks

$257,933 Center for Individual Freedom

$19,615 Patriot Super PAC

$1,624,115 Total

Groups supporting Jim Matheson •

$795,253 Center Forward

$378,364 House Majority PAC

$362,963 Patriot Majority USA

$202,112 U.S. Chamber of Commerce

$75,000 PAC of the American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons

$7,656 Safari Club International PAC

$1,821,348 Total

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