Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Who prevailed in the first debate between Mia Love and Doug Owens?

By Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb, Deseret News

Published: Sun, May 25, 2014, 12:00 a.m. MDT

 Fourth Congressional District candidates, Republican Mia Love and Democrat Doug Owens, shake hands after a debate during the 36th Annual Utah Taxes Now Conference in Salt Lake City Tuesday, May 20, 2014.

Fourth Congressional District candidates, Republican Mia Love and Democrat Doug Owens, shake hands after a debate during the 36th Annual Utah Taxes Now Conference in Salt Lake City Tuesday, May 20, 2014.

(Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Last week, the Utah Taxpayers Association conference featured the first debate between 4th District congressional candidates — Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love and prominent attorney Doug Owens. Frank moderated the debate (some audience members are still seeking therapy), and LaVarr attended.

Who prevailed in the debate and how did they perform?

Pignanelli: “He who frames the question wins the debate” — Randall Terry

Two impressions were made — Love benefited enormously from prior campaign and television appearances; and Owens is on the attack. Love was composed and confident, articulating the usual concerns with the federal government. Owens was well-prepared. However, he learned the same lesson I garnered in my maiden candidate speech — courtroom oratory is very different than electioneering. ("Flesh immediately transformed to stone" is how one supporter described my initial foray.)

Owens revealed his tactic to paint Love as a right-wing fanatic, with the hope of attracting moderate Republicans. He pounded her for statements and policies she forwarded in the last election. She maintained incredible discipline by deflecting the jabs. He provided a good answer for Obamacare — critiquing how it was rammed through Congress without bipartisan input but promised to maintain the important elements.

The debate also certified that Mia Love is a determined persona of strength and will. Both she and Owens offered thoughtful responses to difficult questions. Thus, the election will be decided on more than just policy, but on strategy. Politicos now have a realistic hope the 2014 election could be interesting.

Webb: This encounter wasn’t really a test of either candidate’s debate skills or knowledge of the issues because they received all the questions in advance and weren’t allowed to rebut or interact much with each other. They had obviously prepared carefully scripted written responses. Hopefully, they will have many free-wheeling debates where they won’t know what questions will be tossed at them.

I thought Owens won on substance, while Love was more animated and passionate.

Despite minimal polling, the conventional wisdom is that Mia Love leads by a fair margin against Owens. What does he need to do to gain traction, and what must she avoid to maintain her advantage?

Pignanelli: Love 2014 is not Love 2012. She hired the best in the business — Dave Hansen and Kitty Dunn — to transform her former dysfunctional campaign into a well-oiled juggernaut. Love enjoys the financial resources and name identification of an incumbent, but without a record. Reminding voters of her compelling personal story, while adhering to the course laid by Hansen/Dunn, is Love’s winning formula.

Owens has a difficult — but not impossible — mission. To succeed, he must attract a chunk of GOP and independent voters, and certainly not antagonize them when raising doubts about Love. Further, Owens should define himself before Love does it for him.

Webb: The race is clearly Love’s to lose. The district’s Republican-majority political makeup gives her a major advantage, and the national GOP will pour in as much money and resources as necessary to ensure a win. This is a pickup seat for House Republicans, and for the first time in history they would have a black female serving in the House.

Love is also in better shape this cycle because she didn’t need to run far to the right and please the tea party delegates to win the nomination. She has mostly avoided right-wing positions and statements. Most of Owens’ criticisms targeted things she said two years ago, although he also blasted her more recent appearance at a Sen. Mike Lee rally, which seemed to celebrate the government shutdown, which wasn’t popular in Utah. Love’s campaign theme should be: “Don’t Do Anything Stupid.”

Owens is a moderate Democrat in the tradition of Jim Matheson and is a nice guy. But he has to go on the attack and draw a distinction because he loses a low-key, quiet election. But he also can’t cross the line and be mean or condescending. Nice-guy Peter Corroon tried the attack-dog approach against Gov. Gary Herbert in 2010 and lost badly.

This will be the highest profile race in 2014, so could the contest between Love and Owens impact other elections?

Pignanelli: Utahns loved Matheson's maverick independence, which helped some Democrats because the media market for congressional elections is the whole state. If Owens can replicate Matheson’s magic, Democrats will benefit. If Love succeeds in characterizing Owens as a lackey of the national Democrats, election night will be rough.

Webb: Owens is a solid candidate and he needs to do reasonably well or good Democrats will simply give up on congressional and statewide races.

But if he loses, perhaps he can at least come up with a memorable quote that measures up to one of my all-time favorite political quotes — uttered by his father, the late Wayne Owens. Wayne Owens was a popular, charismatic congressman who served back in the days when Democrats still had a chance of winning. He probably could have served for decades in the House, but he could never resist the siren song of higher office, so he ran for the governorship and U.S. Senate (twice) and lost.

He smilingly confided to friends: “When someone whispers in my ear about running for office, I hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing the 'Hallelujah Chorus.’ ”

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: frankp@xmission.com.

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1. roberto
Moses Lake, WA,
May 25, 2014

Regardless of who won the debate, or who wins the election. I think the best answer is 'term limits'. Every candidate from the President to the down, if he or she depends on votes to get the job should be limited to 2 terms. If they can't fix the problem in that time then let them go... I agree that we'd loose some very good public servants BUT we'd also get rid of the lousy ones also every two terms. Plus they should have to keep the same laws they pass for the rest of us. That includes gun laws, health care, or what ever.

2. Utah_1
Salt Lake City, UT,
May 25, 2014

"I thought Owens won on substance, while Love was more animated and passionate."

Rubbish. I was there in the room. I scored the debate. 33 for Mia and 16 for Owens out of 40. Owens spent more time spinning Mia's comments in such away that she didn't even recognize them.

He had a great flyer. He should have used it. From the flyer he looks like a great candidate. From the debate, not ready to even tell us about him. He used Mia's name more time than anyone I have ever heard.

I left the meeting thinking if this is the best democratic party has, no wonder they are losing many races. I would have rather it have been Rep. Brian King. While I don't agree with him many times, he could do the job.

PS, Mia won in 2012 convention because she didn't try to out "right" the others. Rep. Matheson was blowing smoke 2 years ago. The delegates didn't pick Mia over Wimmer and Sandstrom for those reasons, they picked her, the same delegates that 59% picked Sen. Hatch because she was a better candidate. If she had kept her campaign staff then, she would have won.

3. Herbert Gravy
Salinas, CA,
May 25, 2014

"What difference, at this point, does it make?"!

4. The Real Maverick
Orem, UT,
May 25, 2014

Owens won, clearly. It wasn't even close. He attacked, burned, beat Love down. Not only did he attack, but he clearly showed that he had ideas that would work for our benefit.

Saying that Love had "passion" is just throwing her a bone since she was obviously dismantled in the debate.

Love? Has yet to describe any idea. She has her right wing talking points down... (Smaller government, lower taxes, repeal Obamacare, free market) but has yet to articulate on anything.

The big difference I noticed, how much more air time and ads she gets. Has anyone looked to see who is financing Ms Love's campaign? Out of staters? Folks who I'm sure she won't feel indebted to, right?

Another puppet for the Koch Bros.

If we are dumb enough to elect another Mike Lee/Jason Chaffetz type, then we deserve everything we get.

5. BU52
Provo, ut,
May 25, 2014

Well Prod where do you think committee assignments and seniority privilege comes from if it isn't because congress people hang around and create rules to benefit themselves. Term limits would also end the other abuses.
And by the way as a Utahan, I did support the government mini-shutdown. It didn't hurt anything, everyone was paid (for not working) and it illustrated that a shutdown government still has all the tools it needs to set up barricades and try and punish the people. Showing the hypocrisy of the ruling elite.