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In what has become the first major volley of the 2016 campaign, Utah Democrats are criticizing Rep. Mia Love for being a "celebrity" who misused taxpayer money to travel to a star-studded Washington, D.C., party.
The Democrats unveiled a Web advertisement Wednesday morning, and the campaign of Doug Owens, who is challenging Love in the 4th Congressional District, sent a fundraising email. The barrage rekindles criticism from the 2014 race that Love is more interested in the fame of office than in working on behalf of Utahns.
The attack focuses on Love's use of her congressional funds to pay for airfare to Washington in April so she and her husband could attend the White House Correspondents' Association dinner, which mixes political heavyweights with Hollywood stars.
Love said the flight was appropriately paid for with public funds because she had a meeting with her chief of staff that weekend, but out of an abundance of caution has agreed to reimburse the government more than $1,100.
The narrator of the Web ad says, "Unlike other celebrities, Mia Love used taxpayer dollars to attend this glitzy D.C. party. ... When Mia Love parties, we pick up the tab; it doesn't get more Washington than that."
Owens, who lost to Love in 2014, is hoping to raise money off the misstep. His campaign sent an email to supporters that in part said, "We need a representative who will put the interests of Utahns first, instead of hobnobbing with celebrities at your expense."
Love's congressional spokesman, Rich Piatt, released a statement saying the travel expense was cleared by the House Administration Committee.
"Utah Democrats are sensationalizing this situation purely to raise money. That's immoral and dishonest," Piatt said, describing it as "a baseless attack."
Dave Hansen, Love's campaign strategist, also dismissed the Democratic criticism.
"The simple fact is they can't talk about the issues because she is right with her district," he said. "So they have to find something to pick at, and this is the nitpicky thing they want to try to make something out of."
Hansen said Love is a celebrity, in part because she is the first black Republican woman elected to Congress.
"It is not just because of her race," he said. "It is because she is a very dynamic, articulate, well-spoken candidate."
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon said this issue resonates because it "speaks to her character."
"She only paid the money back because she was caught," he said. "And I think Utahns deserve to know what kind of fiscal steward Mia Love is."
Utah Democrats say Love hasn't fully explained the flights, having provided no proof that she had a congressional meeting the same weekend as the correspondents dinner.
Approached by a reporter from The Hill, a Washington publication, Love said Tuesday she had "a strategy meeting." Asked to prove it, Love said, "That's ridiculous. The whole thing's ridiculous."
Love has been a prolific fundraiser with a national following, although she has kept a rather low profile since joining the House in January.
She has turned down many requests to speak at events and appear on national TV programs, instead focusing on her position on the House Financial Services Committee.
Owens, a lawyer and the son of the late Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, believes he has a chance to unseat the one-term congresswoman in what is seen as the state's most competitive district.
He lost to Love in 2014 by 7,511 votes.
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