Bryan Schott’s Political BS: Proxy Battles

Doug Owens vs. Mia Love? Boring. Doug Owens vs. Mia Love and Mike Lee? That could be interesting.


The conventional wisdom is Democrat Doug Owens is going to get boat raced by Republican Mia Love this year. She has more name recognition. She has more money. She just has more…everything.

But, Owens has exposed a soft spot in Love’s armor by repeatedly bringing up her support for the government shutdown – mentioning over and over her appearance at a rally celebrating Sen. Mike Lee’s role in the 16-day shutdown.

At a recent press conference featuring Owens and outgoing Democratic Congressman Jim Matheson, the two of them said the word “shutdown” a dozen times in about 20 minutes. Clearly they see a vulnerability there.

But, it won’t be enough to simply scream “shutdown” over and over again.

What Owens needs to do is turn Sen. Mike Lee into a proxy opponent.

Remember those “Matheson=Pelosi” signs that popped up when Morgan Philpot was running against Jim Matheson in 2010? It was a good idea, but one that didn’t take hold with voters. “Love=Lee” has the potential to be much more effective.

It’s not a stretch to say Lee isn’t the most popular member of Utah’s Congressional delegation. His leading role in the shutdown damaged his favorability ratings back home. Tilting at that particular windmill also ended up costing the Utah economy somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million.

Owens has to keep hammering the Love/Lee connection. Owens’ allies need to keep bringing up the Love/Lee connection.

Here’s a possible slogan – “Love/Lee is far from ‘lovely’.”  See what I did there? You can have that one free of charge.

This is the only line of attack available to Owens. He can’t win hoping Democratic turnout will save him – there simply aren’t enough of them to lift him to victory. He needs to appeal to Democrats and Republicans who aren’t comfortable with some of Mike Lee’s more extreme positions. Tying Love to Lee is a way to instill doubt in those moderate voters in the middle.

To employ a chess analogy – Love is playing a classic Ruy Lopez and Owens needs to employ something more unconventional, like Grob’s Attack or the awesomely named Petrov’s Defence.

That’s pretty much all Owens has right now. If Love is smart, she will stay away from Owens as much as possible. Everything is trending her way. Utah’s 4th District is overwhelmingly Republican. More Republicans go to the polls in non-presidential year elections than Democrats. It’s her race to lose.

The danger for Love is remaining disciplined in the face of repeated attacks comparing her to someone else. It’s going to be awfully tempting to respond to Owens, but doing so would just legitimize him further. If she starts engaging with Owens, that’s a sure sign her camp think he’s gaining some traction. Otherwise, they would be wise to leave him alone.

In fact, Tuesday’s stunning loss by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor points out the very real peril Love could be facing on the way to her assumed coronation. That political shocker should be a warning klaxon blaring that you should never underestimate your opponent. Cantor outspent David Brat by a 26-1 margin. Despite that stunning material advantage, Brat was able to pull off one of the biggest upsets in American political history.

Love can’t afford to get complacent here. One of the knocks on her in 2012 is she started listening to her own publicity. She was a rising political celebrity and embraced that role…many feel at the expense of her own campaign.

If Owens plays this right, he might just have a punchers’ chance come November. That’s a pretty big “might,” but as we saw a couple of days ago, stranger things can happen.