Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Utah Congressman Jim Matheson Won't Seek Re-Election To House, But Doesn't Rule Out Future Campaigns

One of the 15 Mormons serving in the U.S. Congress will not be running for re-election in 2014. Rep. Jim Matheson, the Democratic House member from District 4, has announced he will stand down next year. However, in his statement on Facebook, he does not rule out seeking elective office in the future, leading to speculation that he might challenge Senator Mike Lee for his seat in 2016. Governor Gary Herbert's term is also up in 2016. At the age of 53, Matheson has a lot of mileage left. (emphasis mine)

"When I launched my first campaign in 1999, I knew that the arc of my public service would have many chapters. It has been a tremendous privilege to serve the people of Utah during my time in the United States House of Representatives, but my time in the House should not be the sum total of my service. Today, I am announcing that I will not seek reelection to the House of Representatives"...

In a Salt Lake Tribune interview, Matheson confirmed that he would consider running for the Senate or governor in the future, although he refused to disclose any specific plans at this time. If he ran for governor, he would be immediately compared with his father, Scott Matheson, a Democrat who served as governor from 1977-1985. Despite being a Democrat in a "red state", Scott Matheson was highly respected. The Tribune portrays Jim Matheson as wanting a timeout from politics to catch his breath and spend more time with his family; he was also growing tired of being constantly targeted by national Republican organizations and having to raise copious amounts of cash to counter it.

Likewise, Jim Matheson was also respected by both sides, having defeated Tea Party favorite Mia Love by a razor-thin margin in 2012 despite the fact that District 4 may be the "reddest" district in Utah and despite complaints from the hard left in the Utah Democratic Party. Senator Orrin Hatch also paid tribute to Matheson's service. Jim Matheson was known as a "Blue Dog Democrat" who was respectful of traditional cultural values and sought compromise between liberal and conservative extremes. Blue Dogs are viewed by some as a continuation of the socially conservative wing of the Democratic party, although the only stated policy position of the Blue Dogs is fiscal conservatism. Thus Matheson was acceptable to those voters who saw value in having at least one pipeline into the House Democratic Caucus. Matheson's social positions tended to replicate those of the LDS Church. But the number of Blue Dog Democrats in Congress has shrunk from 54 in 2010 to 15 today.

Mia Love, an LDS member who is campaigning for the seat, paid tribute to Matheson in this Facebook statement:

"Congressman Matheson has served our state with passion and has been a dedicated public servant during his tenure in Congress. His announcement today does not change my campaign to represent the people of Utah's 4th congressional district. I wish Congressman Matheson the very best during his final year in office."

National reaction has been limited so far. National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden (Oregon) called Matheson's decision a warning signal for Democrats. "Not only will this announcement allow Republicans to focus our energy and resources on defeating other vulnerable Democrats, but it also proves that ObamaCare has become a total nightmare for any Democrat running in 2014," he said in a statement.

Local political wisdom in Utah holds that a Republican is most likely to replace Matheson, primarily because the Democrats have such a thin political bench in Utah. This means the Republican race for the seat could acquire more marquee value, and Mia Love could attract more big-name Republican opposition despite the fact that she has already raised $672,000 in campaign funds as of this post.

The most prominent Democrats I can think of who might challenge Mia Love in 2014 would be current Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, who's on his second term, or former Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Coroon, who served two terms in that position and ran unsuccessfully for Governor in 2010 at the head of a bipartisan ticket. Coroon would seem to meet the standards of being a blue-dog Democrat. Becker is a more traditional Democrat, having espoused gay rights and environmental activism, but he's much more credible than his predecessor Rocky Anderson. Becker has also maintained a good working relationship with the LDS Church, which facilitated the transformation of a seedy part of downtown Salt Lake through the construction of the City Creek Mall.

It's too bad Matheson is retiring. Even though I'm a hard line Republican, I could have voted for Matheson with a clean conscience. While Mia Love has clearly earned her accolades, she's still viewed by some as a novelty candidate. Some people believe Republicans are pushing her because she's a conservative black female, although she has a successful track record as mayor of Saratoga Springs. Mia Love will still have to prove she can earn the trust of voters in District 4 before she starts house-hunting in D.C.

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