Matheson gets a leg up from Obama's campaign

Published June 17, 2010 7:11 pm
Challenger objects » Wright campaign says some Democrats are offended at establishment's attempt to pick sides before the primary.
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Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, is a self-professed fiscally conservative "Blue Dog" Democrat who conspicuously skipped President Barack Obama's 2008 nominating convention and voted against his preferred health care bill, but he's getting some support from the president's campaign apparatus.

Claudia Wright's outsider campaign to wrest the 2nd Congressional District Democratic nomination from Matheson always has said she faced both an incumbent and a party establishment, but on Thursday her campaign manager said the establishment went too far.

Organizing for America, a Democratic outgrowth of Obama's 2008 campaign, is urging its volunteers through e-mails and text messages to vote for Matheson in Tuesday's primary. Wright campaign manager Mike Picardi said, "There are two Democrats in the race," and that some Organizing for America volunteers were offended that the group would tell them which candidate to support.

The congressman also got the White House's blessing for a mailer that touts his help with last year's economic stimulus bill, Matheson campaign manager Julie Merz said. Some Democrats in the past have questioned Matheson's detachment from his party's leader, and especially his absence from the Democratic National Convention in Denver, but the mailer includes a photo of the president.

"It's a picture," Merz said. "It's not like they're fist-bumping or something."

She would not supply the mailer to The Salt Lake Tribune.

Picardi specifically objected to the Organizing for America messages coming from the group's Utah director, Nikki Norton, who shares office space with the Democratic State Committee. Norton e-mailed this response to The Tribune : "Organizing for America is supporting those people who have been allies of the president."

Utah Democratic Party Executive Director Todd Taylor said the local party administration is neutral, and Organizing for America does not represent it.

"They rent space from us," he said.

Wright has said since the state party convention last month that she expects the party establishment to back its incumbent, and it's her job to overcome that barrier. But Picardi said a group that backed Obama -- "an underdog who was not supposed to win" -- shouldn't succumb to the conventional wisdom that Wright is unelectable against a Republican.

The flap is reminiscent of the state convention, where U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., angered Wright supporters by asking delegates to back Matheson for the sake of retaining their party's congressional majority. He said then that only Matheson could win the relatively conservative district, which stretches from the eastern Salt Lake Valley to Moab, St. George and the Arizona state line. Matheson won 55 percent of delegates at the convention but failed to reach the 60 percent threshold to avoid his first primary election.

Primary election

Any registered voter residing in the 2nd Congressional District -- the state's largest -- is eligible to vote in Tuesday's Democratic primary election. The victor of the runoff will advance to face Republican Morgan Philpot in November.

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