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Matheson's exit gives GOP's Mia Love an opening for Utah congressional seat

Utah Republican Mia Love stole the show at last year’s GOP convention, then narrowly lost her bid weeks later to unseat Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson.

The Saratoga Springs mayor’s prospects of winning that House seat in 2014 sharply improved Tuesday, though, when Matheson said he won’t seek an eighth term -- allowing her to face a non-incumbent in a state where Mitt Romney won by 72 percent of the vote.

Washington Republicans gushed over Matheson’s announcement and characterized it as a red flag for other Democratic incumbents in the age of ObamaCare. 

“It’s telling that Matheson, who didn’t even vote for ObamaCare’s original passage, knows he can’t run and win in this climate,” said Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “If it’s this bad for him, imagine how bad 2014 will be for the vast majority of Democrats who actually supported ObamaCare from its start.”

NRCC officials even went so far as saying Matheson’s departure gives their party such a clear path to victory in Utah’s Fourth Congressional District seat that they can spend their money elsewhere on tighter races. 

On Wednesday, however, the group stuck to its policy of not endorsing a candidate in a party primary. A spokesman told FoxNews.com only that Love, who if elected would become the GOP’s first black congresswoman, is part of its 2014 recruiting class, known as the Young Guns.

Beyond running in a strong Republican-leaning district, Love already has raised at least $475,000 and has an established campaign. She captured the imagination of Republican Party members with her Tampa convention speech, with such notable lines as “Mr. President I am here to tell you we are not buying what you are selling” and “This is our story. This is the America we know because we built it.” 

However, critics say Love has to avoid several potential pitfalls that snagged her last year, including by mounting a better campaign, closing the door this time on a third-party candidate and (like fellow Republicans) finding a way to win more of the Hispanic vote.

“Mia Love has a straight shot to Congress now,” said Tyler Harber, a Republican strategist with the international strategy firm Harden Global. “She’s smart, worldly and interested in focusing on solving problems. ... Her loss in 2012 had more to do with a disorganized, amateurish campaign than with the candidate or message. Our failure to take Matheson’s seat in 2012 should stand as a demonstration that campaign do, in fact, matter.”

Harber also said he understands Love is working with operatives for seven-term Utah GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch and now has a team that includes Paul Hatch, formerly of the Republican National Committee.

Matheson won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, compared with 27 percent for Love, according to a Brigham Young University study.

And Libertarian candidate Jim Vein took 2.6 percent of the vote in 2012. Matheson defeated Love by just 49.34 to 48.06 percent.

Love responded to the news of Matheson’s retirement by praising his years of public service, but suggested her strategy remains the same.

“It doesn't change our strategy,” she told Fox News. "We're going to work to win every single vote."

Matheson, among the few remaining Blue Dogs, or Democrats in conservative districts who occasionally vote with their rival party, in May voted with 227 House Republicans to repeal ObamaCare.

No Democrat has stepped forward so far to run for Matheson’s open seat, and whether the party can find somebody to seriously challenge the Republican candidate is still uncertain.

“It’s too early to say and too early to know,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Emily Bittner told FoxNews.com. “It’s very, very early.”