Jim Matheson’s announcement that he would not seek another term in Congress not only has big ramifications for Utah’s Democrats, it impacts those Republicans seeking to replace him next year as well.
The timing of Matheson’s announcement could not be worse for Democrats in the Beehive State. Coming just before the new year, it completely cuts the legs out from any candidate hoping to keep that seat in Democratic hands come 2014. There’s not a lot of time to fundraise or build a campaign infrastructure.
The Utah Democratic Party is already scrambling to find a candidate for Attorney General in 2014 following the John Swallow resignation, now they have to find a credible Congressional candidate too - and those don’t just grow on trees. For a party arguably at their nadir in Utah, having to replace the state’s lone Democrat in Congress will be a mighty hill to climb.
There’s simply no Democratic bench to speak of in the state. Name one Democrat who could win a race for Congress right now. Ben McAdams and Peter Corroon jump to mind...but they would be hard pressed to pull off the win.
McAdams would be the most logical candidate. He’s able to do the exact same thing Matheson was a master at - making Republicans comfortable enough to pull the lever for a Democrat in the voting booth. That’s a rare talent in Utah’s minority party. But, I just don’t think McAdams has the appetite for a Congressional run right now. He’s barely a year into his term as Salt Lake County Mayor. He’s got a Republican controlled council that’s willing to work with him. Why would he leave?
A number of prominent Dems tell me that the decision by Matheson came totally out of the blue. While it had been rumored, nobody really had any idea it was coming. That says loads about the relationship between Matheson and the Democratic party in Utah. Most Utah Dems begrudgingly called Matheson one of their own, but cringed at his efforts to run away from that party label. For him to not prepare the party that this was coming...well, you can read into that whatever you want, but it speaks volumes.
The progressive wing of Utah’s Democratic party has long demonized Matheson, grumbling his independent streak and penchant for voting with Republicans made him a DINO (Democrat in Name Only). They’ve long argued if they could just nominate a “true” Democrat and give Utah voters a “real” choice, not just a “Republican lite” candidate, the party would start to make inroads among the electorate dominated by the GOP.
Good luck with that.
Matheson’s presence in the race and his ability to fend off challengers time and time again kept Utah’s 4th district rated as either “lean Democrat” or “toss up.” Matheson’s retirement immediately changes that rating to “solid Republican” at best or, more likely, “safe Republican.” If Democrats want to test the theory that Utahns would vote for someone who isn’t just a Republican in Democratic clothing, here’s their chance to find out that a candidate like Claudia Wright would get absolutely crushed at the polls. It would be an electoral bloodbath worse than what the Springmeyer/Valdez ticket suffered in 2008 when they pulled in less than 20% of the vote.
Matheson’s retirement changes the game for his chief Republican challenger Mia Love, too. Love fell agonizingly short in her bid to oust Matheson in 2012. This time around she got down to business early - raising tons of money and hiring campaign guru Dave Hansen.
But, without Matheson, her main argument fizzles. Her 2014 candidacy has been built completely on her ability to beat Matheson. Now that he’s gone, she is going to have to shift gears. This was a targeted seat. The GOP was poised to launch an all-out assault to dislodge Matheson. Now that he’s done the work for them, effectively delivering Utah’s 4th district into Republican hands no matter who the candidate is, the money spigot will dry up. That means Love’s national profile dims a bit (maybe a lot).
I suspect a boatload of candidates who wouldn’t normally have a prayer against Matheson will now enter the fray because they would rather take their chances against Love than Matheson.
And, remember...Love has to get through the Republican caucuses and convention to get the nomination. Her tons of cash won’t help her much there. She does have Hansen on her side, who masterfully helped Sen. Orrin Hatch fend off a challenge in 2012, but he doesn’t have the same amount of lead time he did last time around to get Love’s supporters to the mass meetings.
I suspect Love’s supposed easy path to the nomination will get much hairier in 2014 - with her likely being forced into a primary instead of winning the Republican nomination outright like she did in 2012.
Matheson’s departure leaves Utah Democrats wandering in the wilderness while wounding his would-be challenger at the same time. An impactful political move indeed.