The Trials of Jim Matheson

Romney's surge, Mia Love put moderate Utah Democrat in tough spot

Jim Matheson / AP
October 24, 2012

Mitt Romney’s swing from conservative underdog to presidential contender has complicated the political landscape for a handful of moderate Democrats who were banking on tepid Republican turnout in their traditionally red states.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Republican stronghold of Utah where Romney’s surge in the national polls has reenergized the electorate and frustrated the political fortunes of Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson.

President Barack Obama, insiders say, has become an albatross for endangered Democrats such as Matheson, who has been forced to walk a political tightrope as he battles against Republican superstar Mia Love, a candidate whose national appeal has turned the race into a dead heat, according to the latest polls.

Many Utah political insiders expect that Matheson—once a vocal Obama ally—may throw a "hail Mary" pass by publicly endorsing Romney as he seeks to sway the independent and conservative voters who could tip the race in his favor.

"It’s becoming clear to all of us that one of the last hail Mary passes he can throw is to do something over the top and out of the ordinary," said one senior political official in Utah who, like others, spoke anonymously to the Free Beacon.

"This momentum shift has occurred and there’s a likelihood the Republican could win," the source said. "Now, Matheson is in a precarious position that three weeks ago was not the case."

Matheson "realizes he’s in trouble and has to do something big," added another veteran Utah political insider. "Unless they’ve got a silver bullet that they’re going to launch in the next two weeks, they have to do something dramatic."

Matheson has treaded carefully throughout the race.

His campaign website avoids the term "Democrat" and touts endorsements from the National Rife Association and Jon Huntsman Sr., the father of Utah’s former Republican governor and failed presidential candidate Jon Huntsman.

The word "Democrat" is also missing from Matheson’s biography, which describes him as "an independent voice for change."

Matheson’s camp denied speculation that their candidate will endorse Romney.

"That sounds to me like an unfounded rumor," Alyson Heyrend, Matheson’s communications director, told the Free Beacon.

Politicos in Utah claim the candidate is telling a different story in private, however.

"Matheson's doing private events telling people he will support Romney if he's elected," one source involved in the race told the Free Beacon. "He has no reason to say it publicly because the media isn't putting a microphone in his face."

Matheson appears to be moving away from Obama as the presidential race tightens.

He told the Salt Lake Tribune earlier in the race that he "plans to vote for Obama." But he also has declined to reiterate this pledge in recent interviews.

The Democrat these days "is careful not to say who he will vote for on Election Day," the Daily Herald noted earlier this month. "It is expected that he will vote for President Barack Obama but would not say when asked."

This sudden change of heart is a sign to some that Matheson could be laying the groundwork to announce a surprise reversal.

"Matheson is really caught here," said one of the political insiders quoted above. "He told the Tribune he's voting for Obama, but now won't own up to it because the [internal polling] shows it is killing support for him."

Matheson’s staff, the Tribune reported, "has even floated that it would be more beneficial to Romney to have Matheson in the House instead of Love, because it would give him a cross-party vote on major initiatives."

Others point to a recent debate between Matheson and Love as evidence that Obama’s ailing poll numbers have forced the Democrat to change his game plan.

Asked by Love about his support for Obama, Matheson instead discussed his ability to work with Romney.

"I’m not Barack Obama," Matheson stated. "In a Romney presidency, I’d be the first to reach across the aisle to work with him to make sure he’s successful."

Matheson’s pro-Romney political calculations are meant to give him an edge with voters who are already sold on a President Romney, experts say.

"What Matheson is facing is potentially a wave or tidal wave" of pro-Romney voters who need to be convinced that it makes sense to check the box for a Democrat down the ticket, Quin Monson, director of Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Election and Democracy (CSED), told the Free Beacon.

"This is kind of an exciting time [for Romney supporters] and all of those things combined could generate higher turnout and a higher vote share for the top of the ticket," said Monson, who said he does not believe Matheson will endorse Romney.

Matheson has represented Utah’s Second Congressional District, located in the southern portion of the state, for more than a decade.

A recent congressional redistricting, however, forced the Democrat to relocate. He’s now taking on Republican Love in the newly created fourth district.

"He’s faced with a situation where there will be people voting who don’t regularly vote and those who haven’t voted for him before," said CSED’s Monson. "He’s facing an uphill battle in that sense."

While Matheson was once viewed as a favorite to win the new district, where voters tend to embrace moderate candidates, Love’s crossover appeal has earned her a sizable backing.

"The wild card is Mia Love, who is not the typical candidate [Matheson] has faced," Monson said. "That adds a level of uncertainty."

National experts view the race similarly.

"Jim Matheson, to me, is an underdog—Romney should get 70 percent-plus in that district, and that’s been true for months," said Kyle Kondik, House of Representatives editor at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. "However, he very well could hold on."

A Romney endorsement could give Matheson the momentum he needs, insiders argue.

"This is something we’ve all been expecting," said one of the political insiders. "My Democratic friends know that Matheson is willing and capable of making these kinds of decisions."

Matheson’s move to a new district, others argue, "didn’t turn out the way he thought. Now he doesn’t know what to do."

Several other moderate Democrats have also been caught off guard by Romney’s surge.

Embattled Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.), for instance, continues to criticize the Obama administration while on the campaign trail.

Other conservative Democrats, such as Reps. John Barrow (Ga.) and Mike McIntyre (N.C.), also have sought to woo Republicans.

Barrow—referred to by the Associated Press as "the last white Democratic congressman from the Deep South"—recently stumped before a room of Republicans, according to reports.

McIntyre, meanwhile, "is campaigning on extending tax cuts for all income levels, repealing President Barack Obama’s health-care law and blocking illegal immigration," according to Bloomberg’s Businessweek.

Not all of these endangered moderate Democrats are expected to survive the election, according to Kondik.

"It would be surprising if all three survived, but also, frankly, if all three lost," he said.