Mia Love

(Douglas Graham/Roll Call/Getty Images)

Tonight Mia Love takes the stage at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. This speech, delivered during the much-coveted primetime television coverage, will be the biggest moment in the young political career of Love, a Republican congressional candidate from Utah’s Fourth District. It will also serve as the introduction for most Americans to the woman whom many prominent Republicans, including the GOP presidential ticket itself, expect to be a leading voice in Congress for years to come.

Love might be the most talked about Republican congressional candidate in 2012, with numerous appearances on Fox News and CNN, and profiles in the New York Times and Washington Post, as well as lots of exposure on conservative political blogs. Yet so far, more than her Tea Party politics, it is her unique biography—she’s a Haitian American woman and a Mormon convert—that has garnered most of the attention. If elected, she will become the first black Republican woman in Congress. As one longtime Utah political observer told me, “If Mia Love wasn’t a black, Mormon, conservative woman, no one outside of Utah would have ever heard of her.”

IN JUNE, I WATCHED Love do what she says she loves best: “meet[ing] the voters,” glad-handing strangers, hugging supporters and friends, and yes, even kissing babies. One cloudless Saturday, I followed Love and an entourage of her supporters, all wearing bright orange campaign t-shirts, as they marched in the South Jordan Country Fest parade. Along the mile-long route, calls from parade goers—“Mia over here!”—kept Love, dressed in a red top and white knee-length shorts, zigzagging across the wide streets. Many were excited—others downright giddy—to shake hands with the pioneering politician who has already made history as the first black woman mayor in Utah. Love’s opponent, Jim Matheson, received polite but muted applause. “As you can see,” Austin Linford, one of Love’s senior advisors, told me, “Mia’s got this group sewn up. We’re in the most exciting race in the country!”

It might not be the most exciting race in the country to everyone else. But in heavily Republican Utah, the Fourth District is shaping up to be the most competitive congressional race in the state. Matheson, (who is also a Mormon), is a six-term Democratic representative, a Blue-dog Democrat, and the scion of a Utah political dynasty. He remains popular in Utah, even among voters who are supporting Love. The race is therefore not so much a referendum on Matheson’s service. It is more like a popularity contest, and so far, his upstart GOP challenger is getting all the attention.

While she welcomes the press and the campaign generated by her new fame, Love admits that she is not always comfortable in the national spotlight. “Utah is my home,” Love told me as we met at a Mexican restaurant a few days after the parade. We were in a Saratoga Springs, where Love has been mayor since 2010 and before that served on the city council starting in 2004. The town is a booming bedroom community for Salt Lake City and Provo. It’s population has grown from just under 1,000 residents to more than 17,000 residents since 2000. If Love wins the closely contested race with Matheson, she says she has no plans to uproot her young family from Saratoga Springs. “I’m going to bring Utah to Washington, not the other way around,” she explained, a sound bite drawn straight out of her latest campaign ad.

But is Utah ready for Mia Love? The key components of Love’s identity, that she is both a black Mormon and a woman, run at cross currents in the minds of many Utah voters. Among the state’s mostly white, mostly Mormon electorate, Love’s racial identity is a political asset. Yet in a religious culture where gender roles are divinely prescribed—with fathers designated as the breadwinners and mothers responsible “for the nurture of their children”—some voters may have a hard time sending Love, a mother of three young children, to Washington.

Then there is the issue of race. Fair or not, the fact that a white Mormon is trying to unseat America’s first black president has made Mormonism’s troubling history with African Americans a major campaign issue. In 1844, shortly after the death of Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) began excluding blacks from full church membership. They denied men of African descent the Mormon priesthood, a prerequisite for church leadership positions, and they refused blacks access to the Mormon temple. The LDS Church’s racist policies survived into the 1970s. But since the ban was lifted, the church has experienced its greatest growth in long avoided areas in the African diaspora, in the United States, Central and South America, and in Africa itself. The fact this history has been resurrected during Romney’s campaign is a cross that modern Mormons would prefer not to bear.

BORN IN BROOKLYN in 1975 and raised Catholic in Connecticut, Mia Love became a Mormon in 1998, twenty years after LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball announced that he had received a divine revelation ending the ban on full black membership. Soon after her conversion, Love moved to Utah where she married her husband, Jason Love, and found a home in Saratoga Springs among “people who believe as I do,” she told me. Though church leaders continued to discourage interracial marriage after the 1978 revelation, Love never mentioned any objections to her marriage to Jason, who is white. Love has made a point of emphasizing that she’s “always felt welcome in Utah and in my church.”

Love has also tried to steer clear of becoming the black Mormon candidate for Congress. Though she has appeared in the LDS Church’s “I am Mormon,” campaign, she did so, she said tersely, “Because they asked me.” Yet, many Mormons in Utah, who express frustration over having to defend their faith, are happy to point to Love’s race as a rebuttal to the charge that the LDS Church is racist. “Mormons want the world, and the American electorate, to see that the church is diverse,” says Jana Riess, a historian of American religion and a Mormon convert. “Perhaps Love can even establish a new twenty-first century Mormon archetype.”

Initially, Love’s career path was the archetype for many Mormon women. She planned to stay home with her children and “let my husband do all the working.” But soon, she says, neighbors in Saratoga Springs “came knocking at the door,” encouraging her to run for city council. Working in city government has allowed Love to implement the “government isn’t the answer” economic philosophy she learned from her Haitian mother and father. She recounts that her parents “came to this country with only $10 in their pocket,” but managed through “hard work and sacrifice” to send all of their children to college. They did so “without ever taking a government handout,” Love attests.

While serving on the city council, Love helped balance the books, securing a AA+ bond rating, mostly by cutting or limiting services, even while the city was growing exponentially. In fact, one of Love’s proudest political achievements is something that she and the Saratoga Springs government didn’t do. When residents began asking for a library of their own, Love, who had recently been elected mayor, responded that the project was beyond the budget, and the purview, of the city government. Love did work, however, with the city council to provide $10,000 in seed money and a space in the city’s municipal building. The library effort also turned to the organizing and fundraising power of the LDS Church, with weekly announcements about donations from Mormon leaders in the area’s meetinghouses. “When the people came together,” Love explained to me, “the library got built.” She added, “You see, when you just get government out of the way, the people do it themselves, and they take more pride in it because they own it.”

Harvard historian and Latter-day Saint Laurel Thatcher Ulrich says that “serving as mayor… of a newly established ‘bedroom’ community” is very much in line with the volunteer responsibilities that most LDS women undertake. (It also helps that Love’s mayoral position in Saratoga Springs was not fulltime. The day-to-day operations of the city are handled by a city manager appointed by the council.) Yet Love’s desire to go Washington with young children at home is a harder sell for many Utah voters.

University of Utah’s Martha Bradley, a historian of Mormon women in politics, says, “There are always tensions in Mormon communities when women who are mothers enter professional fields as it disrupts the [gender roles]. First, there is the fear that they are taking jobs away from men who are called to be the breadwinners. And second, working outside [the home] means that women might not be fulfilling their principle responsibility to raise righteous children.” Even one of Love’s most ardent supporters told me that she was at first reluctant to back Love’s run for Congress. “Yeah, it’s old fashioned. But I believe that a mother should be with her kids.” She and her husband only came around “after praying about it. After that, it became clear to us that we needed to get behind this woman.”

Love is aware that her gender might be a liability among her mostly Mormon constituency. Her campaign has made a point of showcasing her domestic side. At the parade, her volunteers and staffers handed out flyers with Love’s political platform printed on one side and “Mia’s Summer Favorite” recipes (all Caribbean inspired) printed on the other. Love also speaks in the code of Mormon motherhood when discussing her core political ideals. Jana Riess watched one of Love’s campaign videos and told me that Mormon voters will understand “when Love talks about ‘freedom’ as ‘agency,’ the idea that when you do the right things, God rewards you.” She explained, “Mormon moms will recognize that this is coming straight out of this year’s first primary lesson,” the LDS Church’s official Sunday school guide. “Mormon voters with children will completely get the reference and it will resonate with them,” Reiss said.

Love also hopes that the endorsement of Ann Romney, the most famous Mormon mom in the world, only adds to the message that when Love heads to Washington, she’ll be heading there on a mother’s errand: “to ensure that our children and grandchildren have bright futures,” as Mrs. Romney stated in her endorsement of Love.

NATIONAL REPUBLICAN LEADERS see Love as a key figure in the party’s next set of “Young Guns.” She has won endorsements from John McCain, John Boehner, Eric Cantor, and Kevin McCarthy, among others. In June, Paul Ryan hosted a $2,500 VIP fundraising reception for Love in Park City. And the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) has pledged to spend nearly $1 million to back Love’s campaign, a key to a race where Matheson’s war chest is $1.2 million, while Love has raised only a few hundred thousand.

It looks to be a good investment for the NRCC. According to the Cook Political Report, Matheson represents the most Republican-leaning district in the nation currently held by a Democrat. After the 2010 census added a congressional seat to Utah, Matheson decided to run in the newly created Fourth District, which, while encompassing a large section of his old district, is even more Republican. Matheson didn’t expect to face such a formidable challenger and Republicans want to take advantage of this political miscalculation. Deputy political director for the NRCC Brock McLeary told the Salt Lake Tribune that that the GOP will “spare no expense” to defeat Matheson. “In the past, I think we had underfunded, uninspiring candidates,” McLeary said. “We allowed Matheson to eat into soft Republicans … We think Mia Love puts that Republican coalition [in Utah] back together whole and more.”

Tonight, when Love goes onstage in Tampa, her appearance might help Republicans respond to two of the party’s biggest electoral problems. First, Love addresses the “Mormon problem;” Mia Love proves that you don’t have to be white, rich and stuffy to be a Mormon, or to oppose President Obama. Second, Love might help Romney’s “women problem,” by showing that there is a place for women in the modern Republican Party.

Yet, according to Martha Bradley, such women will be “sticking to the line of the party. They don’t challenge [the status quo.]” Even more, conservative women’s place in the GOP is one wedded to issues that concern them as mothers and wives. “[Mormon] women politicians talk family values, education, things that concern ‘the home,’” explains Bradley.

And that attitude will be reflected in Love’s speech. Tonight she might be speaking in Tampa, stumping to get a job in Washington. But as her longtime friend, Saratoga Springs councilman Michael McOmber, says, “Mia knows where home is. She’ll be a visitor to Washington. Home is in Utah.” 

Max Perry Mueller is associate editor of Religion & Politics.