FILE - In this Oct. 15, 2018, file photo, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams answers a question as he and U.S. Rep. Mia Love participate in a debate in Sandy, Utah, as the two battle for Utah's 4th Congressional District. McAdams declared victory Monday, Nov. 19, 2018, in the tight race, but Love didn’t concede and The Associated Press has not called the race. (Scott G Winterton/Deseret News, via AP, Pool, File)

Democrats flip Utah House seat as McAdams tops Rep. Mia Love

November 20, 2018 - 7:40 pm

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Democrat Ben McAdams has flipped a U.S. House seat in deep-red Utah, defeating Republican U.S. Rep. Mia Love by fewer than 700 votes in a race that took two weeks to settle.

McAdams defeated Love, the first black Republican woman elected to Congress, by a margin just over what would have been needed to require a recount, according to final results posted Tuesday.

McAdams' victory adds to the Democratic majority in a year when they have flipped more than three dozen Republican-held seats across the country to win control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The race had been too close to call for The Associated Press until the final votes were tallied. State election officials will certify the results next Monday.

McAdams declared victory Monday night after a release of ballots gave him a margin his campaign believed was insurmountable.

"This race was about connecting with Utah," he said. "This race was about who was best positioned to serve Utah and working to not get it caught up in a national, partisan election." 

Love was seeking a third term. She said in a statement that she planned to call McAdams but didn't say if she would concede or congratulate him. She said she's traveling with family for Thanksgiving and won't speak about the race until Monday.

"Regardless of how you voted, I want to express my sincere appreciation to you for engaging in the process," Love said. "It is one of many reasons this is the greatest country on earth."

Love finished about 20 votes short of being able to request a recount in a race where about 269,000 votes were cast.

This is the second time she has lost a bid for Congress by a razor-thin margin. In her first run in 2012, Love lost to incumbent Democrat Jim Matheson by 768 votes. She went on to defeat Democrat Doug Owens in 2014 and again in 2016.

For McAdams, it's a victory that validates his reputation as an emerging political force in Utah.

He pitched himself as a solid moderate, and not a typical Democrat, while calling Love a partisan who almost always votes with President Donald Trump. The strategy was aimed at independent voters who account for nearly four in 10 voters in the largely suburban Salt Lake City district and designed to overcome his built-in disadvantage in a district where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by nearly 3-to-1.

He is an attorney who graduated from Columbia Law School and practiced in New York before returning to his home state of Utah. He has been a political figure in the state for a decade. He was elected as one of the few Democrats in the GOP-dominated state Legislature in 2008 and successfully ran for the Salt Lake County mayor's seat four years later.

He became known for working with the state's Republican leaders on issues like homelessness, where he backed a narrow Medicaid expansion to cover treatment and once went undercover as a homeless person when the issue became a crisis downtown.

Though solidly conservative, Utah voters have long been uncomfortable with Trump's brash style and his comments about women and immigrants. That anxiety is especially pronounced in the suburbs of blue-leaning Salt Lake City, and McAdams' mayor position gave him solid name recognition with voters.

McAdams said during the campaign that he would not support California Rep. Nancy Pelosi as House speaker and insisting he'd be able to work with the president. He has already signed a letter, along with 15 other Democrats, vowing to oppose Pelosi.

He sharply criticized Love's support for the GOP-backed tax overhaul and said she had not been available enough to her constituents at town halls. Love pushed back hard, saying the tax overhaul has been good for people in Utah and defending her approach of meeting with voters in smaller groups, on the phone or online.

She highlighted the times she's stood up to the president, like when Trump used an expletive to describe her parents' home country of Haiti. She tried to separate herself from Trump on trade and immigration.

Trump didn't appreciate her approach, calling her out by name in a news conference the morning after Election Day, where he also bashed other Republicans who he said lost because they didn't fully embrace him.

Love seemed to struggle to find the right balance among conservative voters as she tried to keep her distance but stopped short of disparaging the president, said Damon Cann, a political science professor at Utah State University.

"It became very difficult to satisfy everyone," Cann said.

Voter turnout among registered voters was the highest for any midterm election in Utah since 1962 at about 74 percent, according to Justin Lee, state elections director.

McAdams was an excellent candidate and also probably benefited from displeasure with Trump and the Republican Party, Cann said.

"The winds were all at McAdams back," Cann said.

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Associated Press writer Lindsay Whitehurst contributed to this report.

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