SALT LAKE CITY — Like a magician freeing himself from a box filling with water, Rep. Jim Matheson escaped with his political life once again Tuesday to earn a seventh term in Congress.
The Democratic congressman claimed victory shortly after midnight in a hard-fought victory over Republican Mia Love after trailing in the polls going into Election Day. In so doing, he becomes the first representative from Utah's new 4th Congressional District.
After a seesaw battle all night long, Matheson bested Love 49.3 percent to 48.1 percent, a 2,818-vote gap, according to unofficial results. The difference came down to Salt Lake County, the only county Matheson won. Love was victorious in Utah, Juab and Sanpete counties.
In winning another term, Matheson held on to his position as the state's lone Democrat in Congress.
"I believe in building consensus and supporting good ideas wherever they come from and in being the voice for all Utahns," Matheson said. "This is who I am and how I always sought to move forward, by leading from the center and bringing people together."
Matheson said he expected the race to be tight and built a good ground game to get voters to polls.
"I want to tell you something. I have had a remarkable journey," Matheson told cheering Democrats at the Sheraton Hotel. "I am proud to have been a leader in getting things done."
Utah Democratic Party chairman Jim Dabakis said his party saw the Romney tsunami coming.
"We worked harder. We knocked on more doors. We organized as we've never done before, and I think it made a difference," he said, citing the work of the newly formed LDS Democrats and other groups for Matheson's win.
Love, 36, fought back tears as she addressed the media at the Hilton Hotel early Wednesday morning.
"This has been a long, hard battle," she said. "I don't regret one thing."
The Saratoga Springs mayor said she plans to continue to promote conservative issues. Also, as a mayor in the 4th District, Love she would work with Matheson while holding him and other congressional leaders accountable.
Matheson has now fended off six challengers — three of them narrowly — since wresting the 2nd District seat from a Republican 12 years ago. He jumped to the new 4th District this year after the GOP-controlled Utah Legislature carved up his district when it redrew congressional boundaries last fall.
The 52-year-old congressman has proven to be an astute campaigner who appeals to independents and moderate Republicans. In one of his TV ads, a local mayor said he was voting for Mitt Romney and Matheson. He portrays himself as an independent voice who puts Utah over party.
Love tried to tie Matheson to President Barack Obama and questioned his votes on the Affordable Care Act and federal bailouts.
After dropping millions of dollars, exchanging testy debate barbs and attacking each other week after week on TV, Matheson and Love were evenly matched in almost every way as they scrapped for votes to the final hour.
Close races are nothing new to Matheson, and he said he expected this one to be tight from the beginning. A Deseret News/KSL-TV poll late last week had him trailing Love by five percentage points.
Love would have made history with a victory as the first black Republican woman elected to Congress. She often downplayed race and gender during the campaign.
"I don't think that matters to Utah. If Washington is going to make a big deal of it, it's certainly positive in terms of what they think of Utah," she said after winning the GOP nomination in April. "The message of the Republican Party has nothing to do with race or gender. It really has to do with policy and principle, and that's what I represent."
The candidates spent much of the campaign trying to define each other.
Matheson cast Love as a right-wing extremist who wanted to cut programs for special needs children and old people. Love called him a liberal Obama follower who says one thing in Utah and does another in Washington. Both saturated the airwaves with commercials that made the other look sinister.
Love often described herself as a "wife and mother, first and foremost." But she's also a gun-toting, tea party conservative mayor of a small town who wanted to be called congresswoman. The national and state GOP backed her campaign with big money and big name support.
The Matheson-Love matchup was one of the hottest and most closely watched congressional races in the country. It drew unprecedented national and even international attention for a Utah congressional seat, largely due to its potential for a historic moment in U.S. history.
It also was the most expensive U.S. House contest in Utah history, with total spending surpassing $10 million. The runaway spending led to one of Utah's nastiest political ad wars in recent memory.
At least two dozen PACs, superPACs and other groups poured more than $5.6 million into the race for and against both Matheson and Love, according to OpenSecrets.org, which tracks Federal Election Commission financial reports. The campaigns and their supporters inundated the airwaves with one of the nastiest TV ad wars ever in Utah politics.
Those backing Love shelled out $2.9 million, while those supporting Matheson put down $2.7 million. All but about $1 million of the total between the two came in the form of negative or attack ads.
The candidates themselves also built substantial war chests. Matheson raised $2.1 million, while Love raised $2 million, much of it coming after her well-received speech at the Republican National Convention in late August.
Love stitched her campaign to the coattails of Romney, Utah's favorite adopted son.
The daughter of Haitian immigrants, Love entered the race as a relatively unknown mayor of Saratoga Springs. Despite Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff referring to her as a "novelty," she upset two well-known former state lawmakers to easily win the GOP nomination at the state convention.
As the new darling of the Utah Republican Party, Love quickly made a name for herself on the national political stage, especially with conservative bloggers and news outlets. A parade of GOP stars, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, House Speaker John Boehner and eventual vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, made their way to Utah to raise money for her.
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche