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'Matheson Mystique': Luck hardly involved

Published November 8, 2012 3:28 pm

Politics • Utah's lone Democrat in Congress is a good strategist and master of electoral calculus.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It would be easy to dismiss Jim Matheson as the luckiest politician in America, who, each time he is cornered by the Republican machine, pulls off another miracle, escaping by the skin of his teeth to live another two years.

But chalking it up to the Matheson Mystique ignores the fundamental nature of Matheson — that he is meticulous, data-driven, analytical and executes his plan to precision.

"He's one of the most cunning political people I know," said Jim Gonzales, a Democratic campaign consultant. "He reads the landscape so much better than anyone I know. He knows if he's doing one thing how it relates to six other things down the line. I always think he's thinking six moves ahead."

It was that careful preparation and execution that enabled Matheson to once again emerge victorious over Republican Mia Love in the face of a campaign backed by the state and national Republican parties that threw every resource they could toward trying to defeat him.

"I think this race went exactly as I assumed it would," Matheson said in an Election Night interview with The Tribune. "I knew that I had a plan to win."

Picking the District • It was a year ago when Matheson sat down with his closest advisers and leaders of the state party to hash out the complicated calculus that would decide his political future.

The Legislature had "blown up" his existing 2nd Congressional District, Matheson would later say, leaving him to choose between two difficult options.

On one hand, there was the 4th District, a relatively compact area where most voters were concentrated in Salt Lake County, versus the more sprawling and rural 2nd District. Both skewed heavily Republican, but the 4th presented a clearer path.

His home was five miles from the boundaries for the 4th District, but Matheson, who is known for his data-mashing analysis, figured he had represented about a third of its voters before — albeit for a short period of time during his first term in Congress more than a decade ago.

"On the hard, cold numbers, there was an ever-so-slight advantage," said Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis. The 4th District was more favorable by "an incredibly small percentage."

Matheson was bound to be a Republican target, but his decision landed him in a battle with Love, a relatively unknown mayor from Saratoga Springs when she entered the race. The daughter of Haitian immigrants, Love's compelling story and ability to add racial and gender diversity to the traditionally white, male party made her a Republican superstar and landed her a spot at the Republican National Convention.

The national party dumped vast sums of money into the race, and a parade of GOP leaders barnstormed for Love, including House Speaker John Boehner; Rep. Paul Ryan, the future vice presidential nominee; former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; and Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Executing the Message • The blueprint for Matheson became clear early on. Weeks after Love won the Republican nomination, he was painting her as just another rank-and-file conservative Republican and himself as a moderate Utah voice.

"I don't see the difference between her and everyone else I've run against," Matheson said in May. "They're going to go back and walk the party line. They're not going to put Utah first."

The focus of his message became more refined, as he hammered for weeks over budget cuts Love proposed when running for the nomination — cuts to federal law enforcement grants, slashing Medicare, privatizing Social Security, axing special education funds and eliminating subsidized college loans, like those Love used to get her degree.

The message was clear — Love was a reckless partisan — and it was driven home relentlessly, picked up by national groups backing Matheson as part of a multi-million-dollar television ad blitz.

The barrage left a mark, defining the largely unknown mayor before she had a chance to introduce herself to the public. Love and her supporters pounded back, trying to tie Matheson to President Barack Obama.

"Matheson has gotten very good about countering these kinds of attacks," said Damon Cann, a political science professor at Utah State University.

"I think Matheson may have run a better campaign," Cann said, and he needed it to overcome the natural Republican tilt of the district and the dynamics of the election.

Short Coattails • Mitt Romney's spot at the top of the ticket for Republicans was predicted to create a "Romney Tsunami," a torrent of Mormon voters flooding the polls to vote for the candidate who shared their religion and has Utah ties.

It didn't really materialize in Salt Lake County and the 4th District. Romney drew about 16,000 fewer votes and got the same percentage that George W. Bush did in 2004, although about 44,000 provisional and absentee ballots are yet to be counted.

"To me, that kind of debunks the 'Romney Tsunami,'" said Quin Monson, director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, who said he believes that voters may have recognized Romney was likely to lose the election and decided to stay home. "I really think that saved Matheson's bacon."

The story was similar in Utah County, a traditional Republican stronghold, where turnout was essentially the same as it was in 2008.

Getting Out The Vote • If Romney and Republicans failed to get out the vote in the 4th District, the same isn't true of the Matheson campaign, especially when it comes to the early vote.

Monson said that Matheson has traditionally relied on about 30 percent or more of Republicans to cross over and vote for him. In his good years, it's been even higher. This year, according to the Utah Colleges Exit Poll, which Monson helps conduct, that figure was in the low 20 percent range.

So how did Matheson emerge a winner?

"The other way to put your winning coalition together is to move your party ID numbers by mobilizing," Monson said.

Matheson was able to target Democrats who often don't vote and get them to the polls. It was especially clear among early voters, which the Love campaign had thought, incorrectly, it had won easily, but Matheson ended up winning with about 60 percent.

The ground game started back in May, as the field organization began taking shape. They began making voter identification calls and in June — with the backing of state and national staff — started knocking on doors.

"Their field plan was moving 'lazy Democrats' to go vote. It was the drum they were beating constantly," said Gonzales. "Clearly the sense was that in order for Jim Matheson to win, you had to go find Democrats who didn't used to vote and make them vote."

The Libertarian • Matheson may have had a little extra help from an unlikely source.

Jim Vein was the Libertarian candidate in the race who barely registered in discussions, but on Election Day drew more than 5,700 votes. It's impossible to say why voters backed Vein — perhaps they were Democrats disenchanted with Matheson's Blue Dog ways.

Or it could have been part of a campaign effort paid for by the Democratic UTE PAC, which spent more than $10,000 to make tens of thousands of calls to Republicans, making the case that Love and Matheson are both bad candidates and they should consider Vein.

"I'm not fan of Jim Matheson. I've never made that a big secret. But I also don't care for Mia Love much, either," said Dimitri Moumoulidis, a Democratic attorney who runs UTE PAC. "Did it help to get Jim Matheson elected? I don't know. Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe those people were already going to vote for him."

Regardless, it appears Matheson will retain his seat in Congress for another two years, at which point he likely will be targeted by national Republicans once again putting his skill and "luck" to the test.

gehrke@sltrib.com

Twitter: @RobertGehrke