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Now that Gov. Herbert has decided to run for another term in 2016, I think we can make a pretty safe assumption about what Rep. Jim Matheson will do if he decides to get back into the political arena following his retirement from Congress.

 

It’s a pretty safe bet if Matheson runs for anything, it will be to challenge for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Sen. Mike Lee.

Lee’s approval ratings are low following his support of the government shutdown last year, while Matheson is consistently one of the most popular politicians in Utah. Plus, if Lee gets challenged by another Republican for the nomination, which is likely, Matheson could be facing a weakened incumbent if Lee wins that race or be challenging for an open seat.

Challenging Herbert, who is the most popular governor in the country with a 73% approval rating, would be a fool’s errand for Matheson.

Sure, the lure of trying to follow in his father’s footsteps might be irresistible for Matheson - but I don’t think so. He’s no fool and has to realize challenging Herbert would be a big mistake.

He could jump in the gubernatorial contest, hoping that a Republican challenger with less name I.D. and money somehow takes Herbert out before the general election. I’d give him better than even odds of winning a contest against someone other than Herbert.

But, he’d have to bet heavily on someone knocking Herbert out, and he’s too smart to leave his election up to chance like that.

Why do you think he jumped from Utah’s 2nd Congressional District to the 4th after the Legislature tried to redistrict him out of office? He’s smart enough to see that his path to another office in Utah is not through Herbert.

The safer bet is to run for U.S. Senate.

Matheson was rumored to be looking at a run in 2010, the year that Mike Lee took out Bob Bennett in a primary. Matheson had to be kicking himself for not jumping into that race with the opportunity to challenge a neophyte politician for a spot in Washington. He certainly would have made the race closer than eventual Democratic nominee Sam Granato, who lost by a 61-32% margin.

Now that Herbert is reportedly running for Governor again, the race against Lee has to be awfuly appealing - especially since Lee will likely get challenged for the nomination from within his own party, and his place on the ballot is less than assured.

Matheson, more than any other Democratic politician in Utah, poses a major threat to Republicans. He has a crossover appeal that makes Republicans comfortable pulling a voting lever for him. If that wasn’t the case, there’s no way he wins election after election in districts that have a built-in Republican advantage. Yet he did time and again.

It makes even more sense that Matheson would challenge Lee if you think about it in financial terms. With the advent of a dual track system to get on the ballot, it’s almost certain Lee will be forced into a primary...which would be grueling and expensive. Whichever candidate emerges out of that race to face Matheson would be weakened financially and politically. Meanwhile, Democrats would almost certainly clear the decks for Matheson, allowing him to sit back and wait for his opponent without a challenge.

A Matheson vs. Lee race would be interesting for sure. A Matheson race against another GOP candidate who knocked out Lee would be extremely intriguing.

I’m not suggesting Matheson would cruise to victory against either Mike Lee or another Republican in a race for U.S. Senate. But, it would be an easier race for him than trying to topple a sitting Republican governor.

And, let’s face it, Sen. Mike Lee is hardly being treated like an incumbent by the media and his own party. He’s had to listen to constant rumors he’s going to be challenged by the likes of Josh Romney, Thomas Wright and others for the past couple of years.

I’m not suggesting Matheson would have an easy path to a U.S. Senate seat. He’s still a Democrat running in deeply-red Utah.

But, should he decide to run, it makes more sense for him to take on Lee than Herbert.