Why Matheson’s Retirement from Congress Makes Tons of Sense

While I was surprised when UtahPolicy managing editor Bryan Schott called me mid-dayTuesday to say that Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, was not running for re-election in 2014, in some ways his self-imposed retirement makes sense.


I was one who – wrongly – predicted that Mia Love would unseat Matheson in the 2012 election – the first one for Matheson in a newly drawn House district.

As you may recall, Matheson had successfully fought off GOP challengers since he first won the old, old 2nd Congressional District back in 2000.

That was the district held previously by Democrats Wayne Owens and Karen Shepherd – and held in between those Democrats and Matheson by moderates (yes, they were moderate Republicans back then) Enid Greene and Merrill Cook.

When the GOP-controlled Utah Legislature redrew the 2nd District boundaries in 2001, it was a young buck state House member by the name of John Swallow who came within a few hundred votes of unseating the then-freshman Matheson in a district that stretched from Salt Lake County all the way around eastern Utah and into Washington and Iron counties.

For a decade Matheson perfected the art of winning in that GOP-leaning district.

His political base was half of Salt Lake City and the east side of Salt Lake County.

There were a number of Republicans in the city and county who year after year split their ballots – voting for a Republican for governor or the U.S. Senate – but then casting their U.S. House ballot for Matheson.

While a few eastern counties – like Carbon or Grand – may have voted for Matheson in close numbers, he never won the big southern prizes of Washington and Iron counties.

But he didn’t have to. His big numbers in Salt Lake County – where he’d win 60 percent or more of the vote – carried him over the top.

Matheson had a few easy elections in the 2000s – when either his GOP challengers were outside of Salt Lake County or just weren’t very good politicians and/or campaigners.

A few times some conservative money would come in from out of state, but mostly Matheson’s dogged fund raising (here was a guy who started fund raising in the January following his November win) and hard work with constituents served him well.

And his voting record.

Matheson could be counted on driving many Utah Democrats nuts. He was one of the so-called “Blue Dog” Democrats who voted often with Republican President George W. Bush.

He never attended a National Democratic Convention.

Hey, a few times U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, even said good things about Matheson.

I remember one state GOP convention where Hatch forgot the names of the two serving Republican U.S. House members in a speech. But Hatch remembers Matheson’s name.

Strange how that works.

The political tide turned even worse for Matheson, however, when Barack Obama was elected president and then the GOP Legislature redrew four new U.S. House Districts in 2011.

Matheson’s old 2nd District was pushed into Davis County – where anyone from Salt Lake County would be seen as an interloper.

Matheson shocked a few folks by jumping from the 2nd District into the new 4th District – which took in western Salt Lake County and parts of Utah and Juab counties.

It was clearly a tougher district politically than his old 2nd District.

Matheson ran hard in the 4th. He raised a ton of money.

And a number of outside “independent” entities poured cash into the race – which saw Saratoga Springs Mayor Love come from nowhere to win the GOP nomination in the state Republican Convention and then come within 760 votes of taking out Matheson.

Within months of that close loss, Love announced she was going to run against Matheson in 2014.

She hired GOP campaign guru Dave Hansen – who shepherded Hatch to re-election in 2012 – to run her upcoming campaign.

Hansen and Love started fundraising – just as much as Matheson was.

The writing was on the wall.

Even if Matheson managed to beat Love again, the 4th District for the 2016, 2018 and 2020 U.S. House elections would only become more and more Republican.

And Matheson is already the No. 1 Democrat sitting in the most Republican district in the 435-member House.

The 4th includes open ground west of Utah Lake in Utah County – and as the population grew in that area Matheson wouldn’t be getting many more votes.

The 2014 4th District race would, again, be one of the most negative in Utah history. (Just as the 2012 Matheson-Love race was.)

More independent groups would be coming into Utah running pounding TV and radio ads.

Utahns would see a different side of Matheson – one brushed by negative and perhaps less-than-accurate details.

Even if Matheson ran a “clean” campaign himself against Love, he would be painted as a double-dealing, liberal Democrat. And if you have future political hopes in Utah, that’s a color you can’t endure.

Messy, messy, messy.

And for what?

A job that Matheson might well lose in 2014. And if not in 2014, then more likely in 2016.

Two of Matheson’s top, long-time office employees, Alyson Heyrend (his spokesperson) and Mike Reberg (his chief of staff) jumped ship in 2013 – going to work for Salt Lake County.

That alone gave a hint of what was to come.

With the bitter partisanship in Congress, there was little chance that Matheson could put together any kind of significant bipartisan work – like the federal/state land deal he achieved with former U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, in southern Utah several years ago.

So, Matheson was looking at this:

— More time away from his two growing boys. (Matheson and his family have remained in Utah, he commutes to Washington, D.C.; his wife Amy is a pediatrician in the valley.)

— A mean, hard 2014 campaign which he may well lose to Love.

— Even with a victory in 2014, a district that is becoming more and more Republican.

— Little in the way of meaningful legislative successes.

— More and more fundraising.

And while the Mathesons certainly aren’t hurting financially, if Matheson wants to make some real money he has to do that outside of Congress.

He’s got maybe 12 or 15 years of top earning potential.

Finally, and this may be stretching a bit, Congress is toxic right now – even for congressmen who are relatively well liked at home.

If Matheson is looking at the 2016 Utah governor’s race – a chance to step into the office his late father held from 1976 to 1984 – then running out of D.C. is NOT a smart political move.

Best to be well away from Washington for a few years – and criticizing everything that is going on there, from Obamacare to federal deficits to federal land and water policy – before asking Utah voters to consider you for a local or statewide office.

Who knows?

Maybe Matheson might want to throw his hat into a future Salt Lake City mayor’s race.

Sure, it’s smaller than the U.S. House.

But it is also a race that a Democrat can win.

And in Utah it looks like the 4th Congressional District ain’t going to be one of those again any time soon.