20190103 Love CNN

The Utah political world was abuzz over the long 4th of July weekend with news that former Rep. Mia Love is hinting she might challenge Ben McAdams in 2020 to win back her seat in Congress. How serious is that threat?

At first blush, it makes a ton of sense as to why  Love might be thinking about a rematch with McAdams. She lost in 2018 by less than 700 votes, and the district is overwhelmingly Republican, which means the race is very winnable. Surely she has to be considering it.

While the ultimate decision to run will be up to Love, there are several factors that point more toward her staying on the sidelines in 2020.

Money

So far, Love hasn’t raised any money for a 2020 bid. She ended the 2018 race with just $42,000 in the bank. Love’s fundraising operation while she was in Congress was built mostly on direct mailings rather than online donations. That’s a very expensive way to finance a campaign, and it’s not a network she can re-activate quickly without some big start-up costs. While she was in Congress, her money operation was a sort of perpetual motion machine, spending money on mailings in order to generate campaign funds in order to send out more mailings to bring in more donations. That system can raise a lot of money, but it takes time and money.

The 2018 race against McAdams was one of the costliest in the state’s history. McAdams and Love raised a combined $9 million for that contest, with Love accounting for $5.7 million of that total. The 2020 race will be at least that expensive given its battleground status. That kind of cash will be difficult to raise. 

The Federal Election Commission allows candidates to raise or spend some money while they are exploring a run for federal office, but once they either officially declare for the race or raise/spend $5000, they are officially considered a candidate. There’s no indication that Love is even exploring a bid next year.

Love is not a Jon Huntsman or Mitt Romney kind of candidate who could jump into the race at the last minute with a built-in cash advantage. Running for the GOP nomination to take on McAdams next year will be a herculean task, and I suspect she knows it.

Adding to the total cost is a potential bruising GOP primary (more on that below).

CNN

Love was hired as a CNN commentator after her narrow loss to McAdams (UtahPolicy.com was the first to report that story). If Love does decide to run again, that will be the end of her time on the network. While it’s unknown how much CNN is paying Love, she is one of the top regular analysts for the news outlet, given her regular appearances on CNN flagship programs. A 2018 analysis from Career Trend says premier commentators on cable networks can earn upwards of $150,000 per year. It would be very hard to walk away from a that kind of gig. Ex-members of Congress have a 2 or 3-year window to capitalize on their experience and turn it into well-paying television job. 

The FEC investigation

In case you’ve forgotten, the Federal Election Commission is still probing allegations that Love’s 2018 campaign illegally raised $1 million for a primary election that never happened. That controversy dogged her bid for a third term in Congress and remains unresolved. It would be extremely difficult to campaign for a rematch with McAdams with that issue hanging over her head. 

Several veteran Utah politicos with federal campaign finance experience suggest Love may face a hefty fine when the case is finally adjudicated - likely sometime in the next year. The story was a potent issue for McAdams and others last year when it was just an allegation. If the FEC were to rule against her, it would be a more effective weapon against her by an order of magnitude.

A crowded Republican field

There are already two other candidates in the race, with more to come. A crowded primary does not do Love any favors. Her loss to McAdams already has given Republican voters reason to doubt her and look for someone else. During her four Congressional contests, Love did not face a primary challenger. With the new signature-gathering route to the ballot, Love would almost certainly have to win a primary election next year. 

As noted above, she is apparently not raising any money right now, while other candidates are fundraising, building campaign mechanisms and reaching out to voters. Love won’t have to work on her name recognition with voters in UT04 if she decides to run, but she will have to overcome the negatives that led to her narrow defeat last time. The 2018 campaign against McAdams was a bitter, nasty affair and many voters were left with a bad taste in their mouth. 

The clock

The race to challenge McAdams in 2020 is already underway. The Utah GOP convention is 8 months away. If Love is going to get into the contest, she’s running out of time. Every day she’s not running is one less day she has to raise money and campaign. And, it’s another day she’s falling behind potential rivals. 

The biggest clue we have that Love’s heart is likely not yearning for another run? Her personal Instagram account is filled with pictures of a massive yard project she’s been putting off because of her time in Congress. Any public office is a tremendous grind. Her social media presence suggests she’s enjoying her post-Congress life and may not be in a hurry to give it up.

Love probably doesn’t mind one bit being mentioned as a potential candidate. The buzz around her right now raises her public profile, and it keeps her relevant. She can comment on the race, and take a few potshots at McAdams, while not being burdened by actually having to run a campaign.

It is curious that Love launched a broadside at the current crop of Republicans vying to challenge McAdams, essentially saying none of them could beat the Democrat in 2020, which is why she’s considering running again. Not surprisingly, those comments aren’t sitting well with some of her Republican colleagues. One well-placed Republican quipped “She doesn’t get to be the authority on who can win a race she lost.”