By Jennifer Dobner
SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - Rising Republican star Mia Love, who is hoping to become the first black Mormon woman elected to Congress, has narrowed the race for a newly created Utah House district where she is challenging a six-term Democratic incumbent.
Three polls taken over the past two months have shown Love either even with Jim Matheson, the lone Democrat in Utah's congressional delegation, or up by 6 to 15 percentage points, while a fourth showed Matheson ahead by 7 points.
The polls, while inconsistent, contrast sharply with polling data in June and July that showed Matheson up by 15 points or more over the little-known mayor of Saratoga Springs who rose to prominence with a prime speaking role at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida in August.
"These polls have been very volatile," said Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, citing the challenges of polling a new district. "Part of it too is that Matheson is a very well known and popular in Utah, but there is also a lot of excitement for Mayor Love."
The 36-year-old Love's candidacy has caused a stir both in Utah and nationwide after she leap-frogged over two sitting Utah lawmakers to secure the 4th District nomination.
The son of a beloved Utah governor, Matheson was first elected to represent the 2nd District in 2000. He opted to run in the 4th after redistricting scattered his constituents.
Also a Mormon, he is known for crossing party lines to vote with Republicans on issues that align with Utah's conservative values, which are driven in part by the state's predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Matheson and Love both drew 43 percent in an independent poll of 200 registered voters released Tuesday by the Center for Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University and Provo-based Key Research. The poll had a margin of error of 7 percent.
Love held the lead in two September polls. One, by Salt Lake City pollster Dan Jones & Associates, showed her up by 6 points, or 49-43, in a survey of 414 registered voters. Another poll of 400 likely voters by Republican-backed Public Opinion Strategies gave Love a 15-point lead at 51-36.
But an October poll of 407 likely voters from the left-leaning Global Strategy Group gave Matheson a 7-point lead at 48-41. All three polls had margins of error of 4.9 to 5 percent.
"I always anticipated a close race," Matheson said. "There's a certain block that's going to vote for anyone running on the Republican ticket."
Jowers said the race presents a tough ballot decision for voters who like Matheson's record but are intrigued by Love.
"People don't want to trade in Matheson, but they really want Mayor Love," he said. "I think at this point it will really come down to two things: One, how many people will hit the straight ticket button and two, whether people become comfortable with, and not just excited about, Mayor Love."
Federal Election Commission reports showed spending on Matheson's behalf topped $1.8 million as of mid-October while support for Love exceeded $1.6 million.
The spending could make a difference, said Quin Monson, director of the Center for Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University. In the past, Matheson's opponents were unable to match his financial resources and couldn't combat a flood of ads.
"The difference is that Mia Love has the backing of any number of outside groups," Monson said. "She can battle back."
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)