Washington • No Democrat has won statewide office in Utah in 17 years.
It’s a dry spell that eats at the state’s minority party, but one that could end in a few years if Rep. Jim Matheson makes a run for governor or the Senate.
But even a Democrat as well-known, popular and conservative as Matheson would face serious obstacles in deep-red Utah.
“None of his races have been easy, ever,” says Quin Monson, director of Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. “This would be no different.”
Matheson, who said last week he won’t run for his House seat next year and is eyeing a potential bid for Utah governor or the Senate in 2016, knows it would be the challenge of his career, but he’s not afraid.
“I’m a competitive guy and I’m proud of my success in elections,” he said. “I don’t have a problem facing competition.”
Of course, there’s plenty for Matheson to fret about should he mount a bid, but after seven terms in Congress, he’s also got a few things going for him.
Potential opponent? • Republican Gov. Gary Herbert could run for a third term or step aside. Sen. Mike Lee may claim the GOP nomination again or he could find himself on the outs with his own party.
And what happens if voters change the election system to make it easier for people to get on a primary ballot?
Who his Republican opponents may be will clearly impact Matheson’s thinking, and it’s far too early to have a good handle on that question.
As it stands, Herbert may be a more formidable foe. He has a track record as a strong fundraiser, and his approval rating is much stronger than Lee’s.
Monson and his team at BYU conducted a poll in October that showed Herbert with a 71 percent approval rating statewide. Matheson came in at 58 percent and Lee registered just 40 percent. Lee’s low mark came shortly after the 16-day government shutdown, in which the freshman senator was a key player in the GOP’s anti-Obamacare strategy.
“I think Governor Herbert is doing a great job, and I think he would be a more difficult candidate to run against,” said Donald Dunn, a former Utah Democratic Party chairman and congressional candidate. “I think with Jim’s time in public service, it makes more sense for him to run for the Senate. But he has what it takes in either of those races.”
The challenge for Matheson: deciding what race to jump into before the GOP has picked a candidate. If Matheson goes for the Senate and Republicans pick someone other than Lee, the Democrat could face a stronger opponent . If Herbert retires, Matheson could be facing a candidate with the best brand name in Utah.
“I wouldn’t want to be Jim Matheson going up against Josh Romney,” says Monson, referring to the son of ex-presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Raising money • Matheson had about $680,000 in his campaign account at the end of September — which doesn’t include a big December fundraiser — and he could transfer that cash to either a run for the Senate or for governor. The question will be how he raises money going forward.
He has a well-established national network and pulls in regular donations from dozens of associations and national lobbyists interested in his position on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
It shouldn’t be hard to transfer that interest to a potential Senate run, but many of those people would likely pull back their support if he turns his eyes to the Utah Capitol.
“Why would a D.C. lobbyist care if he becomes governor?” asked Jim Gonzales, a Democratic campaign consultant in Utah. “On the Senate side … it is a much easier row to hoe.”
But if he does run for governor, Matheson could accept unlimited donations, instead of facing the tighter rules in the federal system, in which the biggest check he could accept is $2,500 from an individual and $5,000 from a political action committee.
Herbert regularly collects checks of $25,000 or more. And his annual Governor’s Gala has brought in as much as $1 million. “Gary raises money like nobody’s business,” Gonzales said. “The ability to do that is really the big question in the governor’s race.”
Matheson allies say he has a strong track record of raising money from conservative sources, and Utah’s business community would have to consider a gift to his campaign if it appears that he may win.
Why run for governor? • He could claim the job his father held for two terms and redeem his brother Scott’s loss to Jon Huntsman in 2004, which has to hold at least some attraction. He could also stay with his wife and kids in Salt Lake City, instead of bouncing between D.C. and Utah each week.
A run for governor would also eliminate Republicans’ top criticism — that a vote for Matheson is a vote for Nancy Pelosi as House speaker. The GOP would likely replace Pelosi’s name with Harry Reid if Matheson ran for Senate. There would be no boogeyman in a gubernatorial race.
He could also avoid the well-organized opposition at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which would pump money into the race to try to keep the seat in GOP hands whether Lee is the candidate or not.
The governor’s job comes with nice perks: A press corps interested in everything you do, 24/7 armed guards, a state vehicle and driver and a historical house on South Temple.
Why run for Senate? • Matheson knows Washington and has enjoyed working as a legislator, seeking policy solutions and working within Congress to try to get them passed. He has no real executive experience, and being governor is essentially being a manager. From the Senate, where he would be one of just 100, he would have more influence on the policies that matter to him, energy and health care, than he can as one of 435 House members. It also gives him an easier perch to have a national impact.
Democrats are in the majority in the Senate, and they set the agenda, a much more pleasant climate for Matheson should that remain the case in 2016.
Senators are often more high-profile, grab more headlines and get swankier offices than House members. And senators don’t have to contend with a GOP-dominated Legislature like the Utah governor.
Could he win? • The last Democrat who won a statewide race in Utah thinks so. Jan Graham became Utah’s attorney general in 1992, winning at a time when Bill Clinton came in third in the state’s presidential vote. She was re-elected in 1996.
Graham says there is more partisan hostility now than when she was on the scene. and some Utah Democrats are frustrated at Matheson’s often-conservative stances.
“But if anyone can do it, Jim can,” she said.
Matheson has displayed an uncanny ability to garner votes from Utahns of all political stripes. In each of his races, he’s been able to pull in Republican support to put him over the top. In 2012, for example, he grabbed 37 percent of voters who described themselves as not-so-strong Republicans and 11 percent of Republican die-hards, according to the Utah Colleges Exit Poll.
Independents gravitated to him 2-1 over Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love, who is making another run in Utah’s 4th Congressional District.
“He’s figured out the, I guess you would call it, the secret sauce of connecting with moderate Republicans,” said BYU’s Monson. “A lot of that is no secret. He’s genuinely a moderate.”
Given that he’s won two of the four congressional districts in Utah, Matheson also has a connection to a good portion of the state’s population and represented, geographically, three-quarters of the state, everywhere but the northern counties covered by Rep. Rob Bishop. Voters are used to seeing Matheson on the ballot.
But he could be haunted from his past races where outside groups ran negative ad after negative ad trying to link him to liberals and support for Democratic causes unpopular in the state. A “D” behind any statewide candidate’s name in Utah means they start with a disadvantage.
And with one more year in the House, the tough votes he will have to take could make for colorful fodder in a future race.
Jeff Hartley, a Republican consultant and former executive director of the Utah Republican Party, says even though the number of Democrats and independent voters is slowly growing in Utah, the trend isn’t enough to help Matheson.
“If a Democrat could win, it would be Jim Matheson but I don’t think the voter population is there for him,” Hartley said.
Presidential politics • After eight years of President Barack Obama, Republicans in Utah could be running to the polls in 2016 to help elect a Republican to the Oval Office.
While presidential politics don’t often impact state races, a higher turnout for Republicans could hurt Matheson’s chances. Salt Lake County has turned more purple in recent elections but statewide, party identification numbers remain about the same with growth in Davis and Utah counties and the St. George area. Winning the state’s most populous county — as his brother did in 2004 — won’t be enough to put Matheson over the top.
What’s next? • Matheson still has a full year in office, a good amount of time to cement a legacy that he can run on in 2016. Republicans will still control the House, but Matheson can push bills that would curry favor with Utah voters even if they don’t pass.
He’s already known as an anti-nuclear waste advocate and has strongly defended the downwinders benefits. His office is also well-known for its constituent work it provides Utah residents. Keeping that rolling would be beneficial down the road.
The next 12 months would also be an opportunity to put even more distance between himself and the national Democratic Party’s agenda and tout Matheson’s signature “Put Utah First” slogan.
But the congressman insists speculation triggered by last week’s announcement is premature. He says he’ll leave Congress, find a job and look at his options. “I’m excited,” he said Friday, “about looking at what the next chapter of my life is going to be.”