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."Next Page >
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.