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(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, speaks to the Utah House in 2013.
Utah’s Rep. Jim Matheson says he won’t run again in ‘14

First Published Dec 17 2013 12:47 pm • Last Updated Dec 17 2013 10:01 pm

Washington • He was always on everyone’s most vulnerable lists, the congressman defending the most conservative district held by any Democrat. He constantly faced votes that would undoubtedly come up in attack ads and was stuck — year after year, day after day — running for re-election against the GOP machine.

On Tuesday, Rep. Jim Matheson said he’d had enough.

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Matheson, Utah’s lone Democrat in Congress, says he won’t run for the House again, a shock to supporters and opponents alike who saw him gearing up for another bid.

"I just never saw me doing this all my life," Matheson said in an interview. "I always thought there would be other chapters in what I do in my public service career and this just seemed the right time to move on to the next opportunity."

Could that mean running for Senate or governor?

"Yes, sir," Matheson replied, quickly noting that he wasn’t making any announcements now on that.

Matheson, son of former two-term Gov. Scott Matheson, had become Utah’s most successful Democrat in decades and, because of that, the GOP’s No. 1 target. Republicans poured millions into Utah trying to defeat the moderate, some say conservative, Democrat, coming at times only hundreds of votes short of ousting him.

His departure from the 4th Congressional District seat clears the way for an easier pickup for Republicans next year.

Catching his breath • State Sen. Jim Dabakis, the chairman of the Utah Democratic Party, spoke with Matheson before the announcement and said it was a sad day for Utah and America to lose someone in Congress who tries to get things done and break through the gridlock. After 14 years and with a young family, Matheson needed a break, Dabakis said.

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"I understand it completely but the very things that Jim brings to the table, a willingness to roll up his sleeves and not be ideological and just go solve problems, that’s the kind of thing we most need in Washington," Dabakis said.

Dabakis says after catching his breath and spending a few years at home, Matheson could be back.

"There’s a lot of political life left in Jim Matheson," Dabakis said.

Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love who lost to Matheson by fewer than 800 votes last year has already started raising funds to challenge Matheson but said Tuesday his decision changes nothing.

"I certainly respect his decision and I wish him well in anything he decides to do," Love said. "We’re going to keep going forward and raising money and getting our message out."

Matheson’s exit helps that.

Past campaigns against the Democrat have attempted to tie him to liberals, like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and unpopular laws in Utah, like the Affordable Care Act. Love, or other Republicans who may jump into the race, now have an open seat to fight over while Democrats may not have a big enough name to mount a serious challenge, observers say.

Democratic dilemma • "It puts the seat in serious jeopardy for the Democrats, for sure," said Quin Monson, director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.

"The problem is the Democrats don’t have a deep bench of people ready to move forward and they face a disadvantage in the partisan balance of the district, so I would assume that barring some major misstep on the part of the Republican, it increases the chances they’ll take the seat," Monson said. "It also increases the chances someone else will jump into the race against Mia Love in the primary."

Monson said that Love had done a good job of keeping other Republicans out of the race — Utah businessman Bob Fuehr was her only challenger so far — and her fundraising advantage may still scare off challengers.

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