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Utah's 4th Congressional District campaign pitting Rep. Mia Love against Democrat Doug Owens is now a tossup, according to a highly watched political handicapper.
Sabato's Crystal Ball, part of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, moved the race from its "lean Republican" category in large part because of a new poll commissioned by The Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics which found Owens with a 6 percentage-point advantage over Love, a freshman Republican with an outsized national reputation.
The district is "an extreme outlier" on the list of tossups, according to Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the Crystal Ball.
President Barack Obama performed well in the other 28 vulnerable GOP districts around the country in the 2012 race, but in Utah's 4th, he got 30 percent. The Cook Political Report, a competitor of the Crystal Ball, has found that the district is 14 percentage points more Republican than the national average.
"For the most part, districts that look like this should not be in play for Democrats," Kondik said, "but this one could very well be an extraordinary exception."
He believes a few issues are at play. First, Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, held this district and previous versions of it for seven terms, so residents there are not unfamiliar with supporting a Democrat. Also, Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, is not popular in the state.
More directly tied to this contest, Love, the former mayor of Saratoga Springs, only beat Owens, an attorney, by 5 percentage points in 2014, despite having a major fundraising advantage.
This time around, Owens has beefed up his efforts to raise money and will be able to launch a television ad campaign far earlier in the race than he did last time.
Kondik said the Tribune-Hinckley poll, which not only found Love trailing by 6 percentage points, but also Trump tied with presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton "a rosy projection for Democrats" in such a conservative state. He expects Trump to still win here, but he took it as a sign that the 4th Congressional District may indeed be close.
Owens' chief strategist, Taylor Morgan, said: "We're excited by all the support, but we know that we have a lot of work to do now through Election Day."
He suggested the tight race is a reaction by voters who feel "Congress is broken."
Love's main adviser, Dave Hansen, called the ratings shift and the poll "speculation" at such an early stage of the race.
"It doesn't change what we are going to do," he said. "She is going to win and she's going to win by a very comfortable margin."
Hansen has taken issue with the Tribune-Hinckley poll, arguing it underrepresented young voters and strong conservatives, groups which strongly support Love.
The poll was conducted by SurveyUSA using a combination of automated telephone calls and online surveys sent to cellphones of 573 likely voters.
It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.
Love's campaign has also sought to fundraise using the poll, sending out an email to supporters that began "We are losing."
Owens, similarly, tried to rally his supporters to contribute more money by flagging the poll.
The Cook Political Report has not shifted its rating for Utah's 4th Congressional District. It has identified it as a "lean Republican" contest. No other Utah contest makes the list of competitive races from the major handicappers.